Future Energy Trends: A Roadmap

Dr. Tom Butcher
The 2nd OESP Roadshow, held in Gettysburg, Pa., at the Wyndham Hotel on Sept. 21-23 featured a range of educational session. One highlight was Energy Trends, an open and informal discussion with Dr. Tom Butcher, Brookhaven National Laboratory, who will be leading the National Oilheat Research Alliance’s research efforts. He covered a range of trends and future developments in household energy use, and opportunities for heating oil and propane dealers.

There was a specific focus on heating appliances, fuels and the “smart grid.”

Butcher began the discussion with heating appliances, stating that building loads are going down. He emphasized all of the efficiency being put into place today, but noted that a home built today will exist far into the future and that today’s energy milestones might not be that impressive as time advances. “You hear about zero-energy homes, and really tight homes, and this movement toward tiny homes, and you hear that domestic hot water is becoming the dominant load in terms of peak BTUs per hour, and space heating loads are getting lower—and certainly I think all of that is true,” Butcher said. “But a home that is built today could last 100 years, and if you look at the average construction quality of homes today, they are not much better, really, compared to those in the past. So loads aren’t really going to change all that much in spite of better construction.”

Butcher noted that you can consider such leading-edge technologies as condensing appliances, 96% efficient appliances and outdoor reset or equivalent controls as being fairly standard and commonplace moving further into the future. How exciting are they, really?

“Appliances are getting really, really good, and there are a lot of great options out there with the advances in controls and how to make condensing appliances work, but if I go down and talk to the Department of Energy about appliances their response is kind of a yawn,” said Butcher, who noted that 100% efficiency is no longer good enough for the future. “So the question is, how do we get beyond 100% efficiency?”

And, odd as it may seem, you can get beyond 100% efficiency using less-traditional approaches that provide additional energy offsets.

One such solution outlined by Butcher is micro combined heat and power, or micro-CHP, which are basically home heating systems that also generate electricity. These include small engine driven systems, and in Europe the Sterling engine approach has gained a lot of attention. As Wikipedia explains, a sterling engine is an engine that operates by the cyclic compression and expansion of air or other gas (the working fluid) at different temperatures, such that there is a net conversion of heat energy to mechanical work.

You have reciprocating steam and steam turbines, and gas micro-turbines. There are approaches involving Organic Rankine, or ORC, which is basically a refrigeration cycle pushed backward where the scroll compressor becomes a generator. And in Japan, fuel cell systems are being explored that generate high temperatures.
“If you take credit for the fuel you are not using at the power plant to generate electricity, you can achieve efficiencies in the equivalent 125% range perhaps, maybe a bit higher. The engineer in me loves this stuff and I think the potential is fantastic,” Butcher said, though noting that currently these systems are “fiercely expensive.”
Butcher outlined another potential advantage with such systems—the reliability and resiliency factor in case of power outages. However, he further added that current approaches still require the grid to function. “Black start” systems need to be developed to fully maximize on this opportunity, but that makes them even more expensive, he noted.
Circling back, an audience member asked the question: “Is it really worth the effort to push for condensing oil units to get an extra 3% or 4% efficiency?” Butcher’s response was pragmatic, given the big picture efficiency goals. “With non-condensing oil you can hit 92% efficiency, because there is less water vapor in the exhaust compared to gas,” he said. “I personally don’t think the additional cost [for condensing] is worth it. Once you get to 92% you might as well start taking the next step up if the goal is to save oil and energy. Putting in a 96% efficient unit vs. a 92% unit is not as impactful as looking at the existing population of low-performing, often low-income installations out there and doing something to address those.”

Butcher went on to discuss another combustion technology—modulating oil burners.

“Forever we seem to have wanted modulating oil burners that can achieve higher efficiency by rapid firing rates up and down,” he said. “Certainly the gas burners with modulating firing ranges can achieve an AFUE will advantage, so can we achieve that with oil? We’ve tested modulating burners that work great, but they are expensive and never really broke into the market. So, I would say that modulating burners remain a dream that we would love to see.”

Additionally, Butcher touched on electric heat pumps that are gaining market share in Europe. He noted that the performance of these new systems is phenomenal, and they are making strong strides, and oil needs to keep its eye on future of these technologies.

“Ultralow sulfur is a given so there’s no reason to talk about that for the future,” said Butcher, starting off the fuels discussion. “I want to talk about biofuels, some good and some not good.”

On the not so good front, though it is an area an increasing number of traditional heating oil dealers have explored, he cited wood fuel.

“Wood has become the fastest-growing fuel in the country,” he said. “There have been strong economics in its favor. The use of wood stoves has increased significantly. Nobody expected this or planned for this, but happened. Some of this I can’t help but believe is temporary, and that folks will get tired of this. We’ve done it before, and we recycled through it in the 1970s.”

His primary objection was the pollution angle. Butcher noted that wood combustion has become the primary source of particulates in New York State. “There is an initiative called Renewable Heat New York, with a primary commercial focus,” he said. “The motivators for the states are the renewable factor, but that’s only part of it as it’s also creating local jobs. Harvest the wood, make pellets, etc. I saw a study that showed ambient particulates due to wood combustion is very, very high despite the fact that only a very small fraction of the population actually heats with wood. Now, if you start growing that until it’s not just a tiny fraction—think about the impact on ambient air quality.”

He noted that the issue is being acknowledged, and that there is a lot of interest in advanced technologies for wood to control particulates and in advanced thermal storage. But once you move into those areas the economics start to weaken, he stated.

As might be expected, biodiesel made up the “good” part of the discussion. “If you look at biodiesel, the amazing thing is the volumes,” he said. There was [nearly 1.8] billion gallons produced last year. Other sources, like gasification, are nowhere near that. I think we absolutely need a renewable pathway for the future to be part of this. I think the future is a heavy biodiesel future, and what a tremendously exciting change that is if you look at where we were 50 years ago. Biodiesel was nowhere, and that redefines where we can be.”

Butcher asked the audience what level of Bioheat® the industry should be looking at as research moves forward. He noted that one of the top priority items to come out of a NORA research meeting in June, was a priority to get a 100% biodiesel burner (see sidebar for more information on NORA research developments). “I was surprised at that. There is a really strong feeling that we need to eliminate all technical barriers to using biodiesel at any level we want to use it. Accomplishing that, I think, puts the oil heat industry in a tremendous light on the national stage. It’s now a potentially very renewable heating mechanism, that is much cleaner than other options,” he said.

Other liquid biofuels were also discussed, though most of those are currently on the fringe of mainstream applicability.

“Gasification is fantastic,” said Butcher. “They do this in South Africa. They produce their gasoline from coal, and it can be done with biomass, but it’s not going anywhere. The capital cost associated with the construction of these plants is such an impediment to entry into this market, and the risk associated with making that investment has traditionally been a really strong barrier. So technically it’s possible, and the fuels are amazing. But compared to biofuels we are talking [1.8] billion gallons compared to what now is a small sample. My feeling is it would be nice if they come, but it’s not there right now.”

Butcher also touched on wood gasification through pyrolysis, where you take wood and cook it with a lack of oxygen and you produce a gaseous fuel (that can further be processed into a liquid if desired). “The resource size is tremendous, and if we can produce liquid fuels from wood that has real potential,” he said. “The liquids they produce are awful though, so you can’t use them directly. They are heavily oxygenated and you can’t mix them with oil, so you have to work it really hard to get a good fuel. It’s an interesting technology for the future, but we’ll see if it goes anywhere.”

The Smart Grid
The grid of the future—the smart grid concept—has integrated communications throughout the power grid into the home or business and the various appliances connected to the grid. It facilitates “demand side” control where the utility can adjust the electrical use of its customers—turning down an air conditioner, for example—to reduce peak demand periods and strain on the infrastructure.

The data monitoring and collection aspects provide the most interesting aspect for industry members (while also providing chilling aspects among some civil libertarians).

“The concept of connected appliances, and this is coming fast, could have all kinds of cool implications,” said Butcher. “Maybe one simple way to look at this is with a connected thermostat you [the homeowner] can see the temperature on your phone and modify it. That’s cool, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Where could this go? If you look at a fully connected system, let’s say heating system, your aquastat talks to your burner primary control, that talks to thermostats in your outset outdoor reset control, and maybe you have a sensor for water temperatures and they are all communicating with each other and then data flows out through some sort of communications network. What can you do with that data?”

Butcher noted that a service provider could look at the performance of the equipment and determine inefficiencies in the system, potential failure points and fuel usage for managing deliveries. “You can do a better job of looking at burner runtimes on the coldest day of the year, so when it comes time to retrofit that house and replace that boiler with the new one the service company that has been monitoring that data is in a unique position to provide that service.”

The question is, going forward, who owns that data? How can that data be moved down from the major utilities to smaller companies? Will the control manufacturer, through cloud based data collection, become the actual service company that initiates the service call to an outside partner? And, what does that mean to the current industry business model for deliverable fuels and HVAC service? Heady questions indeed.

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