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PNNL saving energy, money through innovation

Published in the Tri-City Herald July 17, 2016, authored by Lab Director Steven Ashby

PNNL saving energy, money through innovation

July 17, 2016
Source: Tri-City Herald, reposted with permission from Tri-City Herald


Developing new technologies to improve energy efficiency, reduce consumption

Standards saved more than $65 billion in 2015

'Transactive energy' monitors consumption in real time

  • Blue OLED

    PNNL researchers developed new host materials for blue phosphorescent organic light-emitting diodes, also known as OLEDs, that boost efficiency by at least 25 percent. This improvement helps solve the "weakest link" in development of cost-effective white OLED lights. Courtesy PNNL.

  • Sarah Widder in one of the Lab Homes

    PNNL researcher Sarah Widder and her colleagues learn more about the performance of energy-efficient technologies at PNNL's Lab Homes — two identical manufactured homes equipped with more than three dozen sensors that hang from the ceiling or are attached to windows, walls and other areas and record information on temperature, humidity, and the amount of sunlight entering through windows. Courtesy PNNL.

  • Building Operations Control Center

    The Building Operations Control Center at PNNL will act as the nerve center monitoring and controlling information on energy usage at PNNL, Washington State University and the University of Washington. The three institutions are part of a first-of-its-kind study to research and test the concept of "transaction-based" energy management, which combines financial signals and dynamic control technologies to shift the timing and quantity of energy usage in devices, buildings and campuses to increase efficiency and reduce costs, while also providing flexibility for the power grid. Courtesy PNNL.


July in the Tri-Cities usually brings sunny skies, hot weather and high demand for electricity as many of us retreat to air-conditioned homes and offices. This increased demand strains our pocketbooks and the utilities providing the power.

While we all know some easy ways to reduce our energy usage, the researchers at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are developing new technologies to make even greater improvements in energy efficiency and larger reductions in energy consumption.

Their efforts not only save money, they also help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the fossil fuels that still provide much of our nation's power.

For more than two decades, PNNL has helped DOE improve energy efficiency in commercial and residential buildings — which represent 70 percent of our nation's total electricity consumption. For example, PNNL experts perform the technical analyses that underpin building codes for homes and businesses. We help shape, test and implement energy efficiency standards for appliances like air conditioners, washers and dryers, refrigerators and lighting — to name but a few.

This may not sound exciting, but the results are eye-popping: These standards saved Americans nearly $65 billion in 2015 alone.

While new windows are significantly more energy-efficient than single- and even older double-pane windows, replacing windows is expensive. As a cost-effective alternative, PNNL recently evaluated "low-emissivity" or "low-E" storm windows installed over existing windows. Our researchers conducted a side-by-side comparison in two identical manufactured homes with and without these windows, under identical conditions, to document the technology's impact. The nearly invisible coating on these windows' glass reduces heat gain in the summer and heat loss in the winter — at less than one-third the cost of new windows.

About 90 million homes in the U.S. could benefit from this technology. When you also consider other types of buildings across the nation, the total energy savings could power 55 million homes for an entire year.

About 90 million homes in the U.S. and many other buildings could benefit from "low-E" storm windows — the total energy savings could power 55 million homes for an entire year.

Lighting presents another huge savings opportunity. Increased efficiency could cut the electricity used for lighting in half by 2030 and save $26 billion a year. You have probably heard of LED lights, which are about 10 times more energy-efficient than conventional incandescent bulbs, last 25 times longer and cost about 90 percent less today than just seven years ago. PNNL researchers helped industry understand performance and cost improvements needed to get these lights widely deployed. They also evaluate the performance of lighting products and help lead a design competition for industry.

PNNL scientists are pushing the envelope of an even more efficient lighting technology that uses organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs). They developed new materials for blue phosphorescent OLEDs that boost efficiency by 25 percent and contributed to material manufacturing processes that may lead to more cost-effective OLEDs that combine red, green and blue light to create white light.

Not all our work is done in the laboratory. Our engineers worked with Seattle City Light to convert 41,000 street lamps to LEDs between 2011 and 2014, saving $2.5 million annually. We also teamed with DOE to analyze the benefits of replacing streetlights in Detroit with highly efficient LEDs. The 65,000 street lights that were replaced helped brighten a city where less than half of its 88,000 street lights were operating and is expected to save $2.9 million annually.

In addition to making homes, appliances and lighting more efficient, PNNL is also at the forefront of "smart" technologies that allow consumers to control their energy consumption, reduce their utility bills and help protect the grid. Several years ago we developed a computer chip that would allow a home appliance like a clothes dryer to revert to tumble dry (without heat) when electricity demand was especially high or there was stress on the grid. Fast forward to today, and numerous smart devices are available, especially for commercial buildings, where they regulate heating and cooling.

Today's challenge is to integrate disparate devices within a building or across a campus so they can communicate with one another and prioritize their power needs. PNNL's solution is called VOLTTRON™. We are using this freely available software platform on our campus to help meet sustainability goals. It is key to "transactive energy," or the ability to manage energy consumption in real time in response to price signals communicated via the power grid.

PNNL will have the first transactive campuses in the country. Moreover, we are partnering with Washington State University and the University of Washington in a first-of-its-kind experiment to demonstrate this concept across a region — an exciting experiment funded jointly by the state's Clean Energy Fund and DOE.

As you can see, saving energy not only makes sense financially, it also can be technologically challenging. Fortunately, we have scientists and engineers at PNNL and across the state who like this kind of challenge. Together they are creating a sustainable future and establishing our state as a leader in clean energy innovation.

Steven Ashby, director of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, writes this column monthly. His other columns and opinion pieces are available here.

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