Three Lessons Clean Energy can Borrow from Fracking

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In the quest for clean, sustainable energy sources, energy efficiency stands out as a no-brainer. Reducing energy waste in a building means not only lower bills and shrinking carbon footprints, but significantly cuts the demand for power plants, transmission lines, gas pipelines and other infrastructure.

But despite its allure, energy efficiency remains elusive. One reason is its distributed nature. In contrast to a power plant, the energy efficiency resource is scattered across millions of buildings, ranging from large skyscrapers and manufacturing plants to houses and apartments. How can this large but fragmented clean energy resource be unlocked?

Fortunately, the U.S. energy industry has dealt with the fragmented resource problem in recent history. Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” as it is affectionately called, has proven to be an effective technology solution to the problem of extracting small quantities of energy resources from scattered places. Fracking is highly controversial because of environmental concerns, but that's a story for another day.


 So what can the energy efficiency community learn from fracking? 

  1. Use data to boost economics 

Whether you are searching for underground reservoirs of oil and gas or invisible energy waste, data is the place to start. Geologists start with low-cost survey data before focusing on specific areas of interest, conducting additional analysis with tools like seismographs, and eventually drilling exploratory wells. Better imaging tools have allowed for greater precision in identifying underground deposits, including the remote areas that were ignored before the advent of fracking  (You can find more info on the exploration technologies here).

A similar path in the search for energy efficiency begins with a remote analysis of readily available utility bills and benchmarking to identify the best opportunities to save. If a particular building looks promising, additional analysis and onsite audits can shed more light on the opportunity. Finally, energy engineers and contractors can develop and implement the project, essentially capturing the resource of energy efficiency.

  1. Start with what works 

    By altering the geology of existing underground reservoirs, fracking has essentially expanded the resource. Fields that had yielded natural gas and oil in the past decades may have run dry and closed down. With fracking, these fields can now produce substantially more gas. For this reason, fracking is the main driver of growth in U.S. natural gas production. 

    fracking_natural gas production

    Likewise, energy efficiency can be “harvested” as a process, gradually building from the easy to the more involved opportunities to deliver greater energy savings from a given building. For example, a building owner may discover a utility incentive program that pays for most of the cost of a lighting upgrade. While tracking the performance of this project, he/she begins to think about utility costs as a manageable expense, and begins a more comprehensive search for additional opportunities. Through education of staff and operational changes, the building saves 10% on energy bills the first year. With this additional insight, the owner realizes he/she can save even more by upgrading the building envelope and replacing mechanical systems. These “big ticket” items are built into the capital plan, and soon the building is saving 35% on energy bills.  In addition to saving money, the owner now has a better quality building with a smaller environmental footprint.

  1. Shake things up

    Fracking gets more oil and gas out of underground reservoirs by cracking the rock formations with high-pressure liquid. Historically, mining fossil fuels was limited by the existing structure of the rocks underground. Now, the practitioner uses the pressurized water to fundamentally alter the shape and structure of the reservoir.

How does this apply to energy efficiency? Don’t worry - I am not suggesting engineers should roam the streets blasting pressurized water into walls, pipes and ducts. But energy efficiency can fundamentally change the structures that hold back efficiency savings. Behavior is key. In the past, energy efficiency was carefully calculated by engineers and economists, predicting that people would invest in an efficient building if the savings outweighed the cost. But that mentality has increasingly given way in recent years to the psychology and intangible drivers of the “irrational man.” Emerging research and an evolving understanding of human decision-making will continue to shape the reservoir of energy efficiency, leading to more savings and ultimately reducing the need for fossil fuels.

Energy efficiency is a critical resource for a world that is increasingly complicated by environmental, political and economic challenges. Even though the concept of reducing waste makes sense, it is not trivial to capture all the benefits of this scattered and fragmented resource. However, by taking a page from the playbook of the oil and gas industry, energy efficiency can be an even more effective part of the clean energy solution.