This spring feels more than an awakening from the winter of 2023. Perhaps it’s from a much longer night: a hibernation period in which we cowered from a pandemic and pondered how life had changed or could change. We emerged, talked about it, then thought about it some more. Now things seem clearer. Are we moving in more definite new directions?
A few urban planners and sociologists I’ve talked with recently say some changes in city traffic patterns have holding power. Except where essential, job commutes five or six days a week are vehemently opposed and may be gone forever. This is not a small change. It affects transportation planning, buildings, energy, and more.
In early February, Emeritus Professor Andrew Blakers at Australian National University and three other scientists were awarded the 2023 Queen Elizabeth engineering prize for ground-breaking research in solar cell efficiency. They developed Passivated Emitter and Rear Cell (PERC) solar photovoltaic (PV) technology and published their findings without a patent.
It became the most commercially viable solar tech, allowing the industry to nearly double its efficiency, driving down the cost of solar, and displacing about 90% of the global solar cell market.
In a podcast a few days after the award announcement, Blakers said: “We don’t even need to get anywhere near $10/MWh to be completely dominant — at $20 to
$30/MWh, solar completely sweeps the board against any other technology apart from wind. It wipes fossil fuels out of the global economy, and I think it’s highly likely we will be in that range by 2030 in many places in the world.”
Further improvements may be coming in the next few years. Efficiencies for PERC and Topcon PV tech are expected to reach about 24% or 25%. Some researchers believe perovskite cells will one day reach 35% or 36%.
Signs already point to a shift to solar. According to PV Magazine, Rethink Electric, an Illinois company offering solar installation and electrical services apprentice training, reports that its 2023 class is the largest to date. More programs are reported to be appearing, such as Real World Academy (http://bit.ly/3In7Xuf) in New Jersey and the Sustainability Hub (http://bit.ly/3ILx0sj) in Illinois.
It’s clear that the fossil-fuel energy era is ending, but what is more difficult to predict is how and when. It’s going to be messy. Different players in the industry are in different stages: denial, anger, bargaining and depression. Very few have reached the acceptance stage.
In the denial stage, big oil companies said there was no climate change. In the anger stage, they spent billions on lobbyists to spin fictions about how hopeless it is to think we can give up fossil fuels and what good guys they were for at least trying a bit.
In February, they began abandoning their greenwashing programs and publishing aggressive plans to double down on plundering and planetary destruction. This new extreme play seems to be a gambit position for the bargains they are trying to negotiate. It remains to be seen if these deals will go badly for them and if they will enter the depression stage.
Numerous reports abound about lawsuits against fossil-fuel companies by shareholders, institutional and bank investors, marketers, and victims of spills, disasters and diseases. Governments are talking about taxing more of the record profits these companies have made recently while spewing out record emissions. In the United States, President Joe Biden has said “big companies” will soon be paying a minimum of 15% in tax rather than being able to exploit many loopholes that allow them to often pay none.
My guess is that one of the key reasons Vladimir Putin created the war in Ukraine was to force global shortages and high gas prices, causing NATO companies to panic and reject alternatives to fossil fuels. The opposite seems to be happening, both in the energy space and in the construction sector.
Heat pump sales in Germany were up 56% in 2022, 57% in the Netherlands, 25% in Norway, 50% in Finland and Poland, and so on. Heat pump sales in the United States now exceed gas furnace sales. That trend is expected to deepen, especially considering building code, city building standards changes and the significant incentives now available through the federal Inflation Reduction Act on heat pumps (and solar and other decarbonization tech).
The International Energy Agency (IEA) says annual sales of heat pumps in Europe could rise to 7 million by 2030 — up from 2 million in 2021 — and that heating buildings accounts for about one-third of its gas demand. Heat pumps could reduce demand by nearly 7 billion cubic meters (bcm) by 2025, compared with 2022, “roughly equal to the natural gas supplied via the Trans Adriatic Pipeline in 2021,” IEA notes. “This annual gas saving would grow to at least 21 bcm by 2030 if EU climate targets are met.”
ASHRAE 90.1 has been updated with tighter clean system and efficiency guidelines. And new and award-winning products at recent AHR Expos in Vegas and Atlanta included different takes on heat pumps, clean energy, efficiency and water-saving innovations.
Cold weather heat pumps and larger heat pumps are not the only developments. Gradient Comfort in San Francisco released a window heat pump, conceptually similar to window air conditioners. It markets the product on the basis that customers will save on cooling and heating energy and save by installing it themselves.
However, a quick review of the manual reveals that if this thing takes off, some people will be calling HVAC professionals for help with the install. It provides 9,000 BTUs of cooling and an undefined level of heating and is designed for rooms up to 450 square feet, using 120-volt electrical service.
Addison HVAC in Orlando, Fla., is promoting its new heat pump under the FrostShield brand. It says there is no need for the defrost cycle and that its unit has none: “As conditions near frosting levels, FrostShield detects outdoor coil temperature levels and determines the precise amount of hot discharge gas needed to prevent frost from forming.” This differs from some products, which the company implies waste energy on defrosting, and may also experience more wear and tear.
Climetec in Ontario, Canada, released a series of vertical fan coil units with capacities from 350 cfm to 1,200 cfm in an insulated galvanized steel cabinet measuring 19.5 inches x 35.5 inches x 9 inches. The company says they were designed for various space requirements, applications and configurations and are highly efficient, quiet and easy to install and maintain.
Emerson’s new Copeland ZPSK7 two-stage scroll compressor lineup scooped up several big awards. The Ferguson, Mo., company says it’s because it will help original equipment manufacturers achieve additional efficiencies and meet new 2023 Department of Energy regulations.
Its residential and light commercial HVAC applications include heat pumps, split air conditioning, packaged systems, rooftops and geothermal systems. It’s a good entry right now because the world is going green and it supports this by creating energy savings for end-users, offering low-global-warming-potential compatibility and reducing Emerson’s carbon footprint through solutions focused on sustainability.
Another award winner is SmartD Technologies with its SmartD Clean Power variable-frequency drive. The Montreal company says that “by delivering a clean, sinusoidal signal, it reduces motor system losses by up to 40% and extends the motor lifetime. It integrates wide-bandgap semiconductors into its multi-level inverter architecture and combines them with patented modulation algorithms to produce a pure-sine wave electrical signal without the need for external filters.”
I’m not sure how new it is, but Shurtape in Hickory, N.C., stepped up the promotion of its Duck Pro product. It allows HVAC professionals to easily and conveniently stick a bar code to a piece of equipment and then use an app they’ve developed to make it easy for the internet to interact with the device — either by providing technical info about the device to perhaps a servicing technician, or by providing data on the existence, location and nature of the device for companies monitoring or maintaining equipment.
Although not an HVAC device, the Channing Street Copper Co. of Berkeley, Calif., is promoting an induction stove with a rechargeable battery in it. My first reaction was to think that we’re having enough trouble overcoming the disinformation campaign against induction without adding a battery as another level of change for people to fear.
However, after reading the company’s material, I think the idea has a lot of merit. It says a rechargeable induction stove can continue working when the power grid goes out, can serve as distributed storage to assist in grid stability and can even be used like a camp stove for cooking. A photo on its site shows it being used to serve up burgers at an outdoor promo event.
Gas Company May Switch to Geothermal
Engineers and building scientists spent six months ridiculing ill-informed politicians and their gas company buddies who have been proposing expensive research projects to study how the gas piping in homes could be magically converted to carry hydrogen overnight.
If it made technical sense, which it doesn’t, it would be great for fossil-fuel companies who love systems that rely on fuel supplied by them, and love hydrogen because it allows them to confuse people and switch green hydrogen to blue hydrogen etc., prolonging the gas era.
Finally, one U.S. gas company listened to researchers who have been telling it about great skills and core competency fit for years. It decided to investigate whether geothermal was a good way for a gas company to go green. In February, the Energy News Network quoted Richard Donnelly, director of energy innovation at Vermont Gas Systems, as saying, “It’s a near-perfect overlay of our current business model.” (http://bit.ly/3Zc8l5K)
The company currently serves about 55,000 customers. Let’s hope other gas companies follow suit.
Electric Vehicle Sales
So much is happening with electric vehicles (EVs) that I could easily write several columns about them. And they relate strongly to the theme of this piece — that both construction professionals and the fossil-fuels industry may be currently shaking off the slumber of a long hibernation and recognizing that a whole new reality is being built.
I mentioned in the foregoing about flex time and shorter work weeks creating changes for transportation planning, building uses and energy calculations. EVs might have even more impact because it’s beginning to look as if car sales, in general, are declining faster than expected, and the share of new EVs is growing much more quickly than predicted.
This is probably the biggest development pushing fossil-fuel companies toward the “depression stage” that precedes acceptance of reality. In 2022, the top-selling vehicle of any kind in California was an electric Tesla Model Y. The second-best-selling car was a Tesla Model 3. Obviously tough for gasoline sellers, but also for Toyota, which keeps saying it is going to move slowly into electrics because there is no demand for them. I think Toyota is making a historic mistake. In 2021 and for many years before, the top two selling cars in California were Toyotas, but they were well behind the new electric leaders in 2022.
The news from across the country and around the world is equally positive for fans of EVs like me. EV sales in America increased by 65% and more than 10 million EVs were sold worldwide. U.S. sales of both four-wheeled EVs and two-wheeled e-bikes will exceed 1 million units during 2023. Imports of the latter doubled during 2021. Globally, e-bikes are a $25 billion business.
President Biden’s IRA provides generous EV incentives, and Tesla has dropped purchase prices and kicked off an EV price war. Hertz is having great success renting out electrics, and American cities are allowing more self-driving vehicle tests than ever before.
Welcome to spring 2023. Time to wake up.