When it comes to energy usage and carbon emissions reports, it’s easy to vilify the HVACR industry. While we, as humans, certainly enjoy the comfort and convenience provided by our heating and cooling equipment, that comfort comes with a heavy set of carbon consequences in the climate change arena.

According to the Rocky Mountain Institute, 70 million American homes and businesses burn natural gas, oil, or propane on-site to heat their space and water, generating 560 million tons of carbon dioxide each year—one-tenth of total U.S. emissions.

Before we get any further, let me be clear that this column is not a referendum on fossil fuels. Fossil fuels will be a part of our energy future, whether we like it or not.

That said, as is the case with most things in life, every action in life is full of pros and cons. With the good, comes the bad (someone cue George Thorogood’s “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer.”). 

So, on a broad scale, what are the pros and cons of continuing to rely upon fossil fuel-based energy production, and why can’t we quickly embrace a more decarbonized, electrified approach in this country? 


Pros and Cons

America’s dependence on fossil fuels is deep-seated. Beginning in the mid-18th century, steam engines fueled by coal and, eventually, oil and petroleum.

Found in the earth’s subsoil, the fossil fuels (coal, oil, petroleum, and natural gas) tend to burn very well. For decades, these fuels were widely considered excellent energy sources due to their affordability, availability, and accessibility. The infrastructure to locate, produce, refine, and transport them is in place. And, we’ve been able to spin off valuable products, such as plastics, through their production. 

That said, with the good comes the bad. Fossil fuels are nonrenewable — they can only be used once. They’re dangerous to produce and refine, as occurrences of mining collapses and oil rig explosions do occur, and (while heavily debated) many believe they carry a cumbersome pollution burden to the planets soil, water, and air. 

Renewable energy comes in many forms, including solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, biomass, etc. As long as the sun is shining, the wind is blowing, or the water is flowing, these energies may be reproduced over and over again. Maintenance tends to be lower as there are fewer moving parts, and they tend to be better on the environment as they don’t rely on combustible fuel elements to produce energy. 

There are cons with renewable energy as well: It requires all new infrastructure, thus the upfront costs tend to be significantly more than traditional fuel sources. While the natural source (i.e., sun, wind) can be pros, they can be cons as well, creating intermittency. If the sun isn’t shining, you can’t draw energy from its rays. And while storage capabilities continue to improve by leaps and bounds (see our May cover story), they’re still somewhat costly and underdeveloped. 


A Difficult Transition

Despite your personal opinion on present and future energy sources, the reality is that fossil fuels will prove to be difficult to replace in an efficient manner. 

For starters, fossil fuel companies are extremely powerful in the political arena. For years, lobbyists have denied the evidence of climate change and continued to stuff political coffers through timely political contributions. 

While decreasing in price, renewable energy technologies and infrastructure are largely unproven and costly. And, retrofitting an entire country will certainly be a cumbersome endeavor. That said, numerous firms and organizations are embracing this sustainability challenge and sprinting toward a cleaner energy future. While publishing a cumulative list of which firm is doing what would prove both exhaustive and challenging, here’s a few firms/organization that have embarked on this sustainability journey. 

McKinstry Pledges to Achieve Net-Zero Annual Carbon Emissions By 2040; 

WSP USA Launches New Climate, Resilience & Sustainability Business;

Jacobs Commits to 100% Renewable Energy and Net-Zero Carbon in 2020 and Carbon Negative By 2030; and

AHRI Board Approves Decarbonization General Position Statement, Establishes Industry as a Resource.


Future Fuels

As engineers, we’re tasked to provide clients with the best, most advantageous, and efficient comfort whenever possible. Going forward, cleaner energy sources must enter into this equation. 

This month’s issue of Engineered Systems showcases how engineering firms are embracing this electrification evolution in articles written by Staci Atwater, associate and project manager/mechanical engineer, Glumac; and Peter Dahl, Ph.D., LEED AP BD+C & O+M, CEM, and Leighton Deer, P.E., HBDP, LEED AP,  BD+C, HGA. It’s our hope you find these articles enlightening and educational. 

We’ll continue to publish stories in this vein in an effort to keep you ahead of the curve. If you have similar stories you’d like to share, don’t hesitate to give me a ring!

While we’re thankful the trials, tribulations, successes, and failures of yesterday’s engineers have gotten us to this point, we must not rest on our laurels. The path to a cleaner, more sustainable future is etched in the sand — it’s up to us to design and build America’s tomorrow so that we can step out of yesterday’s shadow.