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Developing Energy-Efficient Technologies

Developing Energy-Efficient Technologies

Team Meeting of Renewable Energy Engineers Working on an Innovative More Efficient Solar Panel Battery Concept.

Traditional sources of energy use fossil fuels that add greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere and exacerbate climate change and air pollution. Energy-efficient technologies reduce the burden on the electric grid and increase its reliability. By developing renewable energy systems, mechanical engineers help to reduce harmful emissions, lower energy costs and provide energy equity in underserved communities.1

This article will examine the benefits of energy-efficient technologies and how mechanical engineers are developing them.

The Need for Energy Efficiency

The goal of energy efficiency is to perform essential tasks, such as heating a home or driving a car, while using less energy than older systems require. There are two basic methods for achieving energy efficiency: creating better systems and changing behaviors. Mechanical engineers focus primarily on designing and improving energy systems.2

All living things on Earth are made from carbon. It’s also in the oceans, rivers, atmosphere, soil and rocks. Carbon moves through all of these forms as part of the natural carbon cycle, traveling from the earth into the atmosphere and then back into the earth. Human activities, however, such as clear-cutting forests and burning fossil fuels, can accelerate the transfer of carbon from natural elements into the atmosphere.3

Currently, 83% of global energy is produced by burning fossil fuels such as oil, coal and gas, which dumps carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.4 These excess greenhouse gas emissions raise the earth’s temperature, acidify the oceans—damaging coral reefs and other types of sea life—and harm natural ecosystems.5

Innovative Approaches to Energy Conservation

Mechanical engineers approach energy conservation by attempting to mitigate the environmental and social harm caused by energy production. They design sustainable energy systems using renewable sources such as solar, wind and water. They also develop methods for reducing energy loss and waste by optimizing the systems that create, transmit and distribute energy.6

Sustainable Building Design and Architecture

Mechanical engineers work to reduce the detrimental environmental impact of buildings, which account for nearly 40% of total energy consumption in the United States. One significant advancement is in the area of heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.7 Innovations such as variable refrigerant flow (VRF) allow for precise temperature control in different zones, leading to optimal energy use and comfort. Energy recovery ventilation (ERV) systems recover heat from exhaust air, which reduces the energy output required for heating and cooling.

Mechanical engineers also design and develop energy-efficient solutions such as light-emitting diode (LED) lighting and daylight harvesting systems to reduce electricity consumption. These systems use up to 80% less electricity than traditional lighting systems.8

Advancements in Renewable Energy Sources

Renewable energy systems can help mitigate the effects of climate change by producing energy without emitting greenhouse gasses. Although renewable energy solutions are expanding, there are some challenges facing their widespread adoption that mechanical engineers strive to overcome.9

Some renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, are dependent on the weather, which can cause interruptions in energy delivery. Mechanical engineers are working on energy storage solutions to improve reliability and availability.9

They’re also working to improve the efficiency of solar panels and wind turbines. As wind turbines become larger and more complex, they need to be more efficient and reliable. Mechanical engineers’ work improves solar cell technology with thin-film solar panels, which are cheaper than traditional panels. They're designed with a non-crystalline structure, which uses less silicon, and they're lighter and more flexible. As a result, thin-film panels can be used in applications where older-model panels may not work, such as on a curved roof.9

Smart Grid Technologies and Energy Management Systems

The current electrical grid in the United States dates back to the 1890s. It’s a patchwork of over 9,000 generators that deliver electricity through more than 300,000 miles of transmission lines. Mechanical engineers are involved in the development of a new system to manage society’s energy needs more efficiently and effectively. This smart grid will consist of sensors, computers, automation, smart appliances and other new technologies. By allowing for direct communication, the smart grid will provide insights into and give customers more control over their energy usage.10

Sustainable Transportation and Green Mobility Solutions

Green mobility solutions aim to address transportation challenges related to urban congestion and environmental concerns. Mechanical engineers leverage technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT) and data analytics to design intelligent transportation systems (ITS). ITS automate real-time traffic management to make adjustments based on traffic conditions.11

Mechanical engineers are also tackling transportation issues by designing electric and autonomous vehicles. Autonomous vehicles can communicate directly with ITS to find the best routes based on real-time data and reduce traffic congestion. Electric vehicles reduce air pollution and improve energy efficiency.12

Economic and Social Benefits of Energy Efficiency

Energy-efficient practices come with multiple economic and social benefits. In addition to lowering the price of delivering energy, energy efficiency can drive job creation and increase the gross domestic product (GDP). Money spent on energy-efficient designs and upgrades creates jobs in construction, manufacturing and engineering.13 Energy-efficient upgrades can save consumers up to 30% annually on their energy bills and can create more valuable homes. A California study found that residential homes with green labels sold for 9% more than similar homes without the energy-efficiency certification.14

By lowering energy bills, energy efficiency can also help to alleviate fuel poverty—the situation in which 10% or more of household income goes to pay for energy. Programs aimed at reducing fuel poverty in Australia, Ireland, the United Kingdom and the United States have demonstrated significant improvements in health and mental well-being.15

Initiatives in New Zealand designed to create energy efficiency improvements in buildings have been associated with alleviation of the occupants’ health symptoms, including cardiovascular and respiratory conditions, arthritis and injuries. System efficiency upgrades in ventilation and insulation result in more comfortable living and working conditions and increased productivity.15

Become a Leader in Sustainability

As an engineer committed to sustainable, energy-efficient innovation, your work can make a profound difference for people around the world. Prepare for leadership in this dynamic, expanding industry in the online MS in Mechanical Engineering program from Case Western Reserve University. Our expert faculty delivers a top-ranked curriculum, entirely online, at your convenience. You can study from anywhere while collaborating in a small-group environment with students from all over the world. Gain the skills you need to advance your career through work on solutions for society’s most pressing problems.

Make today the day you get started. Contact one of our admissions outreach advisors to learn more.

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