The Overlooked Catalyst That Will Send Energy Demand Soaring

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By Haley Zaremba

As the earth gets hotter, energy demand will increase significantly along with global temperatures. Now a team of researchers in China has determined in a recent study that by the end of this century, peak energy demand in China will increase by a minimum of 72 percent. For every degree Celsius that the global mean surface temperature (GMST) increases, average Chinese residential energy use is projected to raise 9 percent, while peak electricity use will increase 36 percent per degree Celsius.

It is projected that the mean surface temperature of the earth will be 2-5 C hotter by 2099. Calculating based off of current consumption patterns in China, this means that the most conservative estimates show average Chinese residential electricity demand would rise by 18 percent. At the high end, average Chinese residential electricity demand would rise by a whopping 55 percent. Meanwhile peak usage, on the low end, would increase by at least 72 percent.

These findings will have major implications for energy grid planning and other infrastructure in China, where energy use has already been booming thanks to a rapidly expanding middle class. As Chinese incomes increase, even without the added impact of climate change, the electricity consumption of the average Chinese household is expected to double by 2040. Libo Wu, one of the authors of this recent study and professor and director of the Center for Energy Economics and Strategies Studies at Fudan University in China, says that his team’s findings “contribute solid evidence supporting China’s low-carbon policy by showing how important increasing demand from the residential sector will be.”

As part of the study, researchers examined how Chinese energy users responded to daily fluctuations in temperature by analyzing data gathered from more than 800,000 residential customers in the Pudong district of Shanghai between 2014 and 2016. Although residences only make up about one fourth of total electricity usage in Shanghai, they are ideal for this kind of study because energy consumption in the home is very responsive to temperature fluctuations, increasing more during very hot days (around August 1) and very cold days (around February 1) as compared to commercial or industrial usage.

Using this data about consumer behavior, the research team created a variety of climate model simulations to find and characterize the relationship between global temperature change by the end of the 21st century and more local impact projections in China. This method has already been used by scientists studying communities in the United States and other Western nations, but the study was a first for China.

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The study showed that increases in temperature caused much higher spikes in energy usage than was provoked by cold weather. Residential daily electricity consumption increased dramatically for temperatures above 25 C (77 F), amounting to a 14.5 percent increase for every 1 C increase in daily temperature, whereas when temperatures were lower than 13 C (55 F)–cold for the Shanghai region–electricity use increased much more moderately per each 1 C decreased.

In fact, air conditioning units has come under more and more scrutiny recently for their outsized contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. Researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the International Energy Agency (IEA), and Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) found that just room air conditioners alone are on track to produce more than 130 gigatons (GT) of CO2 emissions from now to 2050. This means that room air conditioning units alone would take up 20-40 percent of the world’s remaining “carbon budget”, or the maximum amount of CO2 that we can emit globally without warming the earth more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the goal agreed upon at the 2015  Paris Climate Conference.

For now, only 60 percent of Chinese homes have air conditioning installed, but as the Chinese middle class continues to grow and the global temperatures continue to climb, so will that number, and the goal set at the Paris Climate Conference will retreat further into the rearview.

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