Why Electrical Engineers Play an Essential Part in Addressing Climate Change

CO2 or Carbon Dioxide Emissions are an inevitable result of energy use around the world. When society uses energy, they also create waste because only a percentage of that energy is consumed. The rest drifts into the air like exhaust from a car. This percentage of emissions is referred to as “efficiency.” The ways communities and industries use energy for work or leisure vary widely in their efficiency, but almost all of them contribute to the many millions of metric tons of emissions recorded annually in the United States. While cars are responsible for a huge portion of that figure, electricity consumption plays a big part in this problem, so electrical engineers are also trying to be a part of the solution.

To learn more, checkout the infographic below created by the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s online Masters in Electrical Engineering program.

Electrical Engineers Role in Climate Change

Electricity Emissions Forecast

Thanks to their innovation in the past century, electrical engineers have introduced society to many new ways of performing their jobs or enjoying their lives. They have also contributed to social and commercial reliance on machines, which draw their power from an electrical source. If consumers in the United States do not either reduce their reliance on electricity or develop more efficient ways to create electricity immediately, emissions will increase by 35% by 2035. Around 13 times more energy is being used today than in 1950.

Those dates might make it seem as though change has been slow or that the world has lots of time to improve efficiency, but the most alarming figures are concentrated in just a few decades. Although an average rise of 1.5°F across the US has been recorded since 1895, temperatures increased most rapidly in the past 35 years. Worldwide temperatures have increased as well. Records show that most of the hottest years recorded around the world were during the past 15 years. Even these tiny changes have resulted in major environmental and ecological changes such as migrating animal populations and melting ice caps.

Greenhouse gas emissions from electricity alone increased by about 12% in the past 25 years. Resources are still mostly from fossil fuels; that is, oil and coal. This remains a surprising fact even though electrical engineers continue to experiment and promote other ways of creating power by converting solar, water, and wind energy into electricity, for example. Of all U.S. Carbon Dioxide emissions, 37% were related to electricity in 2015. Transportation and industrial applications account for the other 63%: cars, buses, trains, air travel, factories, and industrial machinery. Other gases contribute, but more than three quarters of emissions are CO2.

Major Energy Users

Five sectors consume electricity: residential, commercial, industrial, transportation, and electrical generators themselves. In the commercial sector alone, consumption related to lighting is a major concern, which has fueled innovation and development. Since this accounts for 19% of their energy use and 11% in residential structures, engineers have been developing new forms of lighting, some of which are already widely in use. The LED or Light Emitting Diode is a low-temperature, long lasting, and durable source of light. Since 2014, consumers have saved $1.4 Billion by switching from conventional bulbs to LEDs. Estimates show that if every light user in the country switched over simultaneously, savings could jump to $49.

This is just one aspect of electricity use, which is proving more efficient than traditional forms. Originally, incandescent lights were only 2% to 3% efficient. Today, engineers are developing ways to recycle wasted heat, converting it to light in the form of modern incandescent bulbs which are many times more efficient and even technically superior to LEDs. They are twice an LED’s maximum efficiency which, surprisingly, is only up to 20%. Fluorescent lights sit between these two in a rating of lighting efficiency at 7% to 15%. Even more progress is needed alongside educating the public to turn off lights and to use natural light where possible.

Where the Power Goes

Other major power consumers include air conditioning (increasingly necessary as temperatures rise), ventilation, and heating, both space heating and water heating. Use of appliances and computers is lumped into a single category and accounts for more than half the energy used in commercial and residential settings. Washing machines, dryers, dishwashers, small kitchen tools, coffee makers, and other household tools are among these. They are examples of progress but also demonstrate how electricity consumption adds up even when individuals and employees use low-drain, Energy Star devices in the home. The same is true of office machines such as printers, scanners, and shredders. Statistics highlight the western world’s reliance on electricity.

Future of Energy Production

As noted above, fossil fuels continue to be the main source from which energy is derived to create electricity, not to mention gasoline and diesel. Consumers rely on electricity to do their jobs, to run their homes, for their comfort, and to enjoy certain leisure activities.

At the University of Arkansas, however, engineering experts are exploring ways to convert energy from natural sources to the grid in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This is not a new idea, but students and professors are concentrating their efforts more directly on this grid-tie idea. From a small-scale experiment begun in the past few years, this could grow so that other universities attempt to do the same thing. If the experiment is successful, this could become a major source of electricity for the general public.

They are harnessing energy from the sun, wind, and water, all of which are free. Solar energy is converted to electricity using photovoltaic panels. Modern windmills capture energy from the wind. Water turbines harness water’s energy. All of these sources can be converted and fed back to public utilities or what is commonly known as “the grid.” A “grid-tie” system allows consumers to make energy without burning fossil fuels, but then also potentially earn money by selling this clean energy back to utility providers. Grid ties are popular with technically savvy individual consumers.

Such a system benefits all parties since the energy is used by public subscribers whose electricity would otherwise be generated by burning fossil fuels or from dams. Their own utility bills are reduced once they have paid for installing solar/wind/water systems of natural energy conversion. Reducing reliance on carbon sources could result in an altered emissions forecast for 2035.

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