A COP21-related Question: Plant 400 Trees or Upgrade Your Modular UPS?

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The annual Conference of Parties (COP21) was held last week in Paris, where world leaders will decide on future actions to limit climate change. The outcome of this gathering, also known as the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, could affect the everyday lives of our children in years to come. So as a product line manager at Schneider Electric, I thought this was a good time to step back and consider how some of our business decisions can have an impact, even on a small scale, on global climate change.

It’s an unfortunate but well-known fact in the industry that the process of distributing electricity is far from efficient. The rule of thumb is that on average, for every unit of electricity used at an end user site, three units must be produced at the electricity generation plant. This 1:3 ratio is the result of electricity manufacturing processes combined with transportation and conversion, meaning the many miles of electrical wires and different voltage conversion operations. So the best we can do is make the most of every electricity unit – that is, consume it with maximum efficiency.

A look back in time to judge progress

In the area I work in, the uninterruptible power supply or UPS business, the technology has seen lots of noteworthy improvements. One example is the increasing use of modular power protection, and how it helps customers use power more efficiently. Schneider Electric (or at the time, APC) was the first company to introduce modular 3 Phase UPSs back in 2002 with the Symmetra PX. The main benefit identified back then was scalability, or “pay as you grow” – customers could start with a few racks and minimal power protection (reducing their upfront investment), and scale up over time as their needs or business expanded. These benefits are still true today, and still resonate for many customers.

After 13 years of experience with modular UPS, we discovered that the concept has much more to offer than just scalability. A few years ago, we went from the first to the second generation of power modules. In so doing, efficiency jumped from 93% to 95.5% (UL, 208V figures). While that may seem like a small percentage jump, it results in a big saving: reducing the amount of “useless heating” (meaning electricity that is wasted in the form of heat as opposed to powering a load) from 7% down to 4.5%, a 35% improvement.

This improvement is delivered seamlessly to our customers, both new and existing, and for the same price as first-generation equipment. All it takes to upgrade is to remove the existing power modules, which in most cases are getting old anyway, and replace them with the second-generation ones. No downtime, no cabling, no mechanical frame to remove (and recycle). With a classic UPS, the equivalent upgrade would imply a full system replacement, including dismantling the old UPS, possibly changing cables, batteries and distribution – and a full day downtime in the best case.

So after two generations, we find that modular UPSs are not only more scalable and redundant, but also more future proof. They’re also more sustainable, as it provides customers with the latest energy efficiency improvements. I don’t think anyone foresaw that when modular UPSs were first introduced.

How a 2% increase in UPS efficiency = 400 trees

Which brings me back to COP21. We saw that upgrading a modular UPS system provides a 2% increase in energy efficiency, conservatively. What does that mean in terms of carbon emissions? At 50kW load, it represents 1kW less electricity consumption (2%*50kW=1kW). That’s a savings delivered all year round, 24x7x52, which comes out to 8.736 kWH saved per year (24*7*52*1=8.736 kWH). The most obvious benefit is an economic one: with an average electricity price of $0.12/kWH, the immediate yearly saving is about $1.050 per year.

But what does the increase in energy efficiency translate to in terms of CO2 emissions – and how many trees would need to be planted to achieve a similar effect?

CO2 emissions are designated as the primary source for global warming – and the main element that COP21 tries to keep under control. CO2 emissions linked to electricity highly depend on the electricity plant type. In the worst (and still most common) case, if the electricity comes from a coal plant, 1kWH of electricity produced results in almost 1kg of CO2 emissions in the air. So using the 8.736kWH saved every year – if the electricity came from a coal plant, it’s 8.736kg of CO2 emissions avoided – more than 8 tons!

Trees are known to absorb CO2 through the photosynthesis process. According to a USA NGO study, one single tree can absorb up to 48lb (21.8kg) of CO2 per year. So these 8.736kg of CO2 represent the yearly carbon absorption of 8736/21.8 = 400 trees!

I realize the details surrounding such calculations may be up for debate. What if the electricity came from a wind or solar farm? And I hope COP21 will result in an accelerated transition to such renewable energy sources. But that transition will take time. Today customers can both save money on electricity and reduce carbon emissions by upgrading to the latest modular technology. So why wait?

Learn more about how Schneider Electric is helping to promote sustainable energy at our our sustainability page, which details our own efforts as a company as well as various efforts we’re involved with around the globe.

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