As Demand for ‘Thermal Comfort’ Grows, So Does Urgent Need for Energy Efficient Materials & Solutions

by | Oct 30, 2017

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Significant variations in climate, economic power, building traditions and public perception/attitude towards climate change have resulted in vastly different adoption rates of energy efficient building materials and technologies in countries around the world, a new study shows. Energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions of new buildings in Europe have been reduced dramatically as a result of a coherent energy policy, the enforcement of strict building codes and the adoption of more energy-efficient technologies but in contrast, different perceptions of the risks of climate change in the US have resulted in a less coherent energy policy and less stringent building codes, according to a report published in MRS Energy & Sustainability by authors Matthias M. Koebel, Jannis Wernery and Wim J. Malfait.

The scientists from the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology argue that increasing demands for “thermal comfort” from the flourishing middle classes in countries like China, Brazil and India could pose an enormous global challenge. Technologies that improve energy efficiency – such as improvements in building envelope, controls, HVAC, insulation materials and products, window and solar transmittance controls, among others – will need to be overwhelmingly adopted to meet demand.

“We need to act urgently to increase the energy efficiency of our buildings as the world’s emerging middle classes put increasing demands on our planet’s energy resources,” the authors argue.

Buildings already account for up to 40% of our global energy demands (and nearly 50% in the US). New solutions are continually being developed to help homes and workplaces become more energy efficient – from airtight envelopes and superinsulation materials to integrated photovoltaic panels. When combined with user behavior, these solutions can help to reduce the energy consumption of our buildings by a factor of three.


The Solutions Are Here, but Must Be Implemented

“Various aspects of the science and technology of reducing energy demands of buildings are now well understood,” according to the report, and effective products are available in a variety of areas.

According to the report:

“…New materials and solutions are continuously developed for the building envelope and systems: airtight envelopes, superinsulation materials, triple and vacuum insulation glazing with switchable g-values, low-cost solar cells and modules, building integrated photovoltaics, heat pumps, heat and electrical storage, building energy management systems, and smart grids. Equally important is the continuous reduction in cost for these energy systems, which is a driver of intense R&D.”

The authors argue that the growth in population and economic status in developing countries will place a particular strain on the successes gained by current energy efficiency efforts, as economic gain and energy demands to fuel continued economic growth will likely take center stage for developing countries in the future.

“The growth of a middle class in countries like China, Brazil and India, and their increasing demand for thermal comfort, will precipitate a strong increase in cooling energy demands, unless efficient and sustainable solutions can be implemented readily and quickly,” the authors conclude.


Increases in Standard of Living Boosts Consumption in US, as Well 

The study mirrors insights expressed by Richard Gerbe of Highmark last year in Energy Manager Today. Gerbe pointed out that, with world energy consumption projected to grow by 56% between 2010 and 2040 (per the US Energy Information Administration), it is the rising standard of living that is responsible, in part, for the growth of consumption in the US. “For example, devices requiring round-the-clock charging are widespread and more people are using air conditioners – especially as summers get hotter. Not to mention the clean-energy paradox that causes energy use to surge if the source is known to be renewable,” Gerbe wrote. He added, “The bottom line is we’re living in a world of power-hungry items, resulting in electricity demand swelling.”

Photo credit: Portland General Electric energy storage system, Flickr Creative Commons

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