With the world’s population urbanizing at a rapid rate, cities now account for between 60 and 80% of global energy consumption and 75% of total CO2 emissions. If the world was moving toward a more digitalized and decarbonized future, the COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated those trends. Workforces are become more decentralized as more businesses formalize their work-from-anywhere policies. Meanwhile, commercial building owners are investing heavily in technologies to make office space healthier to lure those workers back. And, new regulations are forcing all workplaces, whether homes or offices, to reduce emissions through electrification of their HVAC systems.
Indeed, the twin challenges of COVID-19 and climate are converging to define a future in which data centers proliferate; heat pumps provide heating and cooling to homes and offices; and indoor air quality (IAQ) is just as important as energy usage.
The Growth and Demands of Data Centers
Data centers are quickly becoming a piece of critical infrastructure as the economy digitizes and newly dispersed workforces connect from home offices. With new data being generated at an exponential rate, driven by the impact of such things as mobile data traffic, cloud computing, the Internet of Things and AI, the need for storage and efficient data use is essential.
But with increased digitalization comes the potential for increased carbon emissions, as data centers generate constant heat and require substantial energy to stay cool and operate at peak performance. Energy-efficient data center cooling strategies are central to supporting the growth of big data in a sustainable way. Technologies like heat recovery, oil-free compressors and chillers and the use of ultra-low GWP refrigerants will be decisive to future designs.
Investing in Decarbonization
In 2021, global carbon emissions totaled 1.5 billion tons. Global energy demand in the same year is expected to rise 4.6% above the 2019 level. Even if the expected growth is delayed by a resurging pandemic, the overall trajectory is clear. Meeting local and global decarbonization goals will require greater investment in low-carbon energy solutions.
Increased investment in infrastructure over the next decade will bring greater interest in energy efficiency and clean energy technologies. Building occupancy will be changing and with greater emphasis on remote work, global interconnectedness and indoor air quality, buildings will need to revamp their energy systems to meet 21st century demands.
The Push for Electrification
Electrification of buildings and transportation will decrease our reliance on fossil fuels and is critical to reducing carbon emissions. As states and cities put policies in place to electrify new and existing buildings, heat pump technology is poised to replace traditional boilers and furnaces. In new construction, this transition should be fairly smooth as the technology matures. Existing buildings, however, present a challenge to decarbonize. Retrofitting these structures, particularly larger commercial buildings, will require substantial heat sources or advances in technology. In the short-term, heat pump chillers that provide shoulder-season heating paired with natural gas back-up systems can significantly reduce emissions without sacrificing comfort. In addition, variable-speed heat pumps, a more effective and efficient alternative to the current single-speed models, are currently available for homes and smaller commercial applications.
Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) Becomes Top Concern Post-COVID
The COVID-19 pandemic has made indoor air quality the number one concern for building owners and those managing offices spaces. Property managers are racing to implement IAQ strategies including improved ventilation and increased filtration. Increasing the flow of outdoor air into the building and filtering the indoor air with MERV and HEPA filters, however, often leads to increased energy use. Balancing the requirements for safe indoor environments with energy efficiency and emissions goals is going to be a key challenge for building owners and HVAC manufacturers in the future.
Fortunately, variable-speed equipment is capable of maintaining constant air flow through a building while adjusting to fluctuating occupancy and comfort demand, saving energy while maintaining a high level of indoor air quality. This allows the system to provide only as much heating or cooling as is needed while maintaining proper air flow. This is just the type of technology that will allow building owners to find the proper balance between IAQ and energy efficiency.
Developments in data storage, carbon emissions, electrification and indoor air quality all interactive with one another, have created both challenges and opportunities. The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a chance to reset and to reimagine the future of work and housing and our use of buildings and transportation. With the recent report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stressing the need for decarbonization and sustainable energy sources, the next few decades will require innovation and transformation to create a healthier future for our planet.
This article was adapted from the Fall 2021 issue of Solutions magazine. To read the full article, along with case studies on energy-efficient chillers, IAQ and data centers, go to https://bit.ly/3IkbxET