Pick the low-hanging fruit to get tough on climate change

One might think – after years of focus on global warming – that all the easy measures for reducing greenhouse gas emissions had been taken. And yet, as governments prepare for their 21st annual conference on climate change (COP21), some surprisingly low-hanging fruit remains.

I don’t mean small fruit, either. I’m talking about big, high-yield fruit. Consider this: fitting energy efficient electric motors on all pumps and fans with devices to regulate their speed would save 3,338 TWh (3.3 million GWh)*, roughly equivalent to 14 times the amount of electrical energy consumed in Australia in 2012.

The opportunity is so huge because electric motors are among the biggest consumers of energy. They power all manner of equipment and account for about 28% of all electricity consumed worldwide.

In recent years Australia, along with several other countries, such as the United States, China and the European Union, has imposed new rules requiring older, energy-hungry motors to be phased out. These rules, known as Minimum Energy Performance Standards (MEPS), specify the minimum acceptable efficiency levels of a product, defining which products can be marketed and sold. Typically, these MEPS become more stringent over time. In Australia, rules requiring a higher efficiency class of motors came into effect in 2006, but have not been tightened since.

MEPS in Australia will ultimately lead to the upgrading of the installed base of electric motors. However, at the current pace of implementation, and taking account of loopholes and enforcement issues, they will likely fall short of the energy savings needed to achieve climate goals, especially given that global energy consumption is expected to increase by 30% over the next 15 years.

One reason is that MEPS specify the efficiency of individual products, in this case electric motors, rather than the efficiency of motor systems. No matter how efficient a motor is, if it cannot regulate its speed according to load, it will always be operating at full throttle. Legislation is gradually changing to take account of this – for instance, EU rules that came into force in January 2015 specify that certain (less-efficient) motors must be able to adjust their speed. But only around 10% of motors in service worldwide are currently equipped with (variable speed) drives that allow them to do this, even though the energy savings can be substantial – up to 50% in some cases.

Another challenge is to establish common MEPS globally. Again, progress is being made in this area, with more and more countries moving towards harmonized standards, but much remains to be done. A recent study commissioned by the European Commission** concluded that, if the most stringent current MEPS for product energy efficiency were harmonized today, global final energy consumption would be 9% lower, and energy consumption due specifically to products would be 21% lower. This would save 8,950 TWh of electricity, equivalent to closing 165 coal-fired power plants, or taking 132 million cars off the road.

The clock is ticking on climate change. The weight of scientific opinion is that we don’t have much more time to turn the tide on emissions, otherwise it will not be possible to limit global warming to two degrees above pre-industrial levels, which is considered the maximum temperature rise we can sustain without triggering potentially catastrophic climate events.

Of all the actions that can and are being taken to limit carbon emissions and mitigate the effects of climate change, none holds out more promise than improving energy efficiency. There are numerous measures that can be undertaken immediately, without fear of harming economic growth; indeed, since most investments in energy efficient technology are paid back within a year or two through lower energy costs, they can significantly boost competitiveness and through the replacement of old equipment generate additional economic activity. Fruit doesn’t hang much lower than this.

* Calculation is based on ABB’s installed base of variable speed drives, which covers around 20% of the global market and is estimated to be saving some 445 TWh of electricity annually.

** “Savings and benefits of global regulations for energy efficient products”, European Union, September 2015

Dr Ulrich Spiesshofer is President and Chief Executive Officer of ABB Ltd., a $40 billion company specializing in power and automation technologies that enable utility and industry customers to improve performance while lowering environmental impact. The ABB Group of companies operates in around 100 countries and employs about 140,000 people.