Fifteen years ago, I decided to dedicate my career climate change solutions. But how would I actually do that? The number of innovative solutions and organizations is overwhelming in the most inspiring way possible. I find myself cheering on so many amazing ClimateTech companies, including Memphis Meats, Imperfect Foods, and WaterSmart.
After considering many opportunities, I chose Extensible Energy, a company that develops load flexibility software. For those not familiar with load flexibility, I know what you’re thinking.
Very simply, load flexibility shifts the time when a building uses certain electrical loads, such as air conditioning. Shifting the times that buildings turn on their A/C may not seem like it will save the planet, but it is mission-critical, just like forest conservation, water efficiency, preventing food waste, and reducing meat consumption. We each have our roles and our wedge in climate solutions.
To help my climate and solar energy friends understand the potential global impact of load flexibility in the commercial sector (hint: over 8 gigatons!), let’s look at some numbers.
How Load Flexibility Reduce CO2 Emissions
Today and with increasing urgency, we need responsive, ultra-flexible building controls to smooth our transition to a renewable energy powered grid. Seventy-five percent of electricity is consumed in buildings in the US, making buildings a huge opportunity for load flexibility and decarbonization.
Extensible Energy’s DemandEx load flexibility software significantly reduces CO2 emissions in two ways:
1) Load Shifting: We shift electricity usage from dirtier, emissions-intensive times of day to cleaner, lower emissions times of day
2) Improving PV Economics: We accelerate the commercial solar adoption by significantly improving returns on solar installation for building owners.
Emissions Savings Due to Load Shifting
All kWhs are not created equal. Some are produced by solar and some are generated from fossil fuels (especially those used during summer evenings). Shifting electricity use to hours when renewable energy is producing can significantly reduce the emissions intensity of electricity usage. Today, power costs are not perfectly synchronized with emissions, but that’s quickly changing. Since renewable sources are already less expensive (and continuing to get cheaper) than fossil fuels, we can assume that energy cost and emissions intensity will be more consistently aligned in the near future.
I calculated emissions savings due to load shifting based on the following formula:
Average emissions reduction due to time-shifting (tons of CO2) X percentage of building loads in suitable commercial buildings X percentage of electricity usage flexible in Extensible Energy’s controlled buildings
In terms of CO2, we can easily reduce CO2 by 20% by intelligently shifting select non-critical loads by a few hours. This reduction could be through precooling a building or charging an electric vehicle at lower emissions intensity times of day while parked at an office building.
The figure below demonstrates 15-40% emissions intensity differences in over just 3 or 4 hours. Even if the numbers vary by state or country, it is demonstrative of the variation in emissions intensity by time of use.
Figure: Estimate of the hourly greenhouse gas intensity of the California grid in kg/kWh
Source: California Public Utility Commission, California Solar & Storage Association
I utilized the carbon intensity of electricity generation data from the IEA and CPUC to reasonably calculate emissions reduction potential. Even if just 30% of loads are flexible (which is a conservative estimate based on Extensible Energy’s current customers) in just a quarter of commercial buildings, the types Extensible Energy serves today, I calculated that we can reduce emissions by 3.5 gigatons over the next 30 years.
Emissions Savings Due to Improved Commercial PV Economics
Now let’s explore how DemandEx accelerates the adoption of commercial solar.
All efforts to reduce emissions are dependent on a matrix of factors to achieve goals. No company or organization can singularly ‘claim’ any emissions reductions to be ‘ours’ alone. We depend on other technology developers, smart policies, healthy financial systems and mechanisms, and a hundred other pieces to make it all come together. Nevertheless, since our software increases returns and reduces payback time, we believe we can positively affect commercial solar decision-makers.
With that in mind, I used a top-down approach to calculate the potential total CO2 savings by DemandEx increasing PV deployment over the course of 30 years. Here’s the equation:
Difference in Solar PV Capacity (GW) X Solar PV Production (kWh) X CO2 Savings from Solar (Tons)
To project the change in commercial solar adoption, I used the International Renewable Energy Agency’s commercial solar projection from 2020 – 2050 to determine the difference in future commercial PV capacity based on the cost of PV systems. The projected difference between the Low Renewables Cost and High Renewables Cost in 2050 is 50GW. From 2020 – 2050, the sum of the increased generation is 750 GW.
Utilizing information from the EIA, NREL, and the CEC to calculate solar PV production and CO2 savings from solar, the expected CO2 savings by innovative products like DemandEx accelerating PV deployment is approximately 4.9Gt globally by 2050.
In summary, our emissions savings look like this:
To get past the blur of numbers and tons, sometimes it’s helpful to use tools to equate tons of emissions savings to something familiar -- 8.4 gigatons of CO2 is equivalent to emissions of 1 billion tanker trucks’ worth of gasoline! -- or to visualize tons and gigatons of CO2. As an example, see this video from Carbon Visuals.
Once again, I am not claiming that DemandEx could be the single factor that drives this exponential growth. But as any solar installer will tell you, price and savings are the two main reasons for business owners going solar, and our DemandEx software can certainly add to the decrease in payback time and increase returns. In good company among the growing number of climate problem solvers, we are flexing our climate muscles by flexing loads.
Deepa Lounsbury is Director of Products at Extensible Energy
Special thanks to Raine Scott, Product Manager at Extensible Energy and the Berkeley Innovative Solutions team for helping with the emissions calculations