Scope out your Emissions: A Simple Tool to Assess your Building’s Electricity Impact

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We need power to keep the lights on – to keep our businesses and our lives humming. We also know where that power comes from greatly impacts the environment. What we haven’t had is a simple, direct, and visible way to understand and quantify how our energy consumption impacts emissions and an easy means to evaluate progress over time. We’re changing that today with the launch of our free-to-use web-based TradeOff Tool called the “Site Electricity Emission Factor Calculator”.  For every kWh of electricity your site consumes, the intensity of the carbon emissions emitted (also referred to as an electricity emission factor) can span anywhere from 0 g CO2e/kWh (really good!) to over 1,000 g CO2e/kWh (really bad!).

As sustainability and net-zero rise to the forefront of many conversations, and our changing environment becomes a growing concern, it’s important you:

  1. Understand how your electricity consumption impacts your emissions, in other words, quantify it.
  2. Set goals to reduce it.
  3. Evaluate progress over time.

Estimating the emissions factor

Our new, simple-to-use Site Electricity Emission Factor Calculator helps users estimate the emission factor (kg/MWh, kg/kWh, or g/kWh). The site could be a data center, a commercial office building, a hospital, a residential building, or any building that consumes electricity.

If we assume the building’s electrical efficiency is the best it can be, then the only other way to further reduce electricity generation emissions and their impact on the environment is to reduce the carbon-intensity of that electricity. The figure below shows the emission factor for 8 common sources of electricity, ranked from best to worst. These rankings can serve as a benchmark to understand the range of possibilities and to see their relative climate impact. In practice, nearly every site will have some mix of these electricity sources, including those from:

  • Utility-provided electricity
  • Onsite-generated electricity
  • Renewable contracts

Figure: Benchmark of Emission Factors by Electricity Source (g CO2e/kWh)

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Location, location, location

According to Our World in Data, in 2022, the global average emission factor was 438 g CO2e/kWh and the U.S. average was 368 g CO2e/kWh. But the values span widely from country to country and state to state because the source mix varies so much. In addition, the average mix will continue to evolve year over year, as utilities work to add more renewables like solar, wind, and hydro-power, and take high-carbon-emitting fossil fuels like coal offline. Utility providers generally publish their source mix on their website if you want more localized data, but our tool gives you a starting point for the location you select, based on data from Our World in Data and Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI).

Onsite generation

Buildings may choose to supplement their utility-provided electricity with onsite generation for several reasons. It may be for cost-savings (i.e., avoiding expensive time-of-use pricing), reliability/resiliency improvement (i.e., provide backup power in case of grid outages), and/or environmental benefits (i.e., reduce the carbon footprint). The type(s) of onsite generation and the hours used directly impact your overall emission factor. A diesel generator emits 973 g/kWh vs. a natural gas generator, which has a cleaner burning process, emits 719 g/kWh; whereas generating electricity with onsite renewables like solar or wind emit zero.

Renewable contracts to offset emissions

The third part of the electricity mix that is becoming more common due to increased demand for clean energy is the use of renewable contracts. S&P Global Commodity Insights: states, “US renewable energy credit market size to double to $26 billion by 2030”. Renewable contracts allow you to reduce your emissions by contracting with a renewable energy provider and supporting the generation of clean electricity. Some contracts come with renewable energy certificates (RECs), which represent the environmental benefit of 1 MWh of renewable electricity generation. These can be used to claim the associated emissions reductions.

Understanding the breakdown of your electricity emission factor

Our new simple-to-use, web-based tool (shown in the Figure below) helps you not only see your overall electricity emission factor, but helps you understand the breakdown of where the emissions come from. You may have heard the terms Scope 1, Scope 2, and Scope 3 GHG emissions. Well, if you have some combination of utility-provided and onsite generated electricity, your electricity leads to emissions in all three of these categories (with the exception of renewables).

Scope 1 emissions are all direct emissions within the operational control of the data center. In the case of electricity, this comes from operating generators onsite.

Scope 2 emissions are all indirect emissions generated from purchased or acquired electricity, heat, steam, or cooling (i.e., energy). In the case of electricity, this is the acquired electricity from a provider.

Scope 3 emissions are all other indirect emissions from sources such as business travel, waste management, manufacture of the products you buy across the value chain. This category is often not considered or broken out when quantifying electricity-related emissions. The electricity-based portion of Scope 3 emissions comes from the pre-combustion process as well as the transmission and distribution of the electricity to the site. For instance, for coal-generated electricity, Scope 2 accounts for 962 g/kWh and Scope 3 is 103 g/kWh, which sums to the total value of 1,065 g/kWh in the earlier figure. White Paper 99, Quantifying Data Center Scope 3 GHG Emissions to Prioritize Reduction Efforts, dives deeper into Scope 3 and demonstrates how to identify the largest emission sources in data centers.

Site Electricity Emissions Factor Calculator

The tool lets you play around with “what-if” scenarios to see how your emission factor would change as you change your mix of utility, onsite, and renewable contracts. It provides graphs that illustrate the overall electricity emission factor, and lets you see which sources are contributing to your overall emission factor, then drill into the specific scopes.

Give the tool a try. I believe it will enlighten you to the make-up of your electricity emission factor, what the drivers are, and what actions you can take to reduce it. Tell us what you think!

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