Last year in the UK you couldn’t attend an event or read an article about net zero without hydrogen being cast as the great green hope. That’s a longer discussion for another day, but I simply fail to understand why a substance and technology so costly to produce and difficult to transport, and so early in its scaled-up deployment to the energy marketplace, is seen as such an important answer to the net zero conundrum.
As you can from my hierarchy of energy and carbon reduction measures below, the first and most effective means of reducing consumption and emissions is eliminating waste. One of the most tried and tested, and reliable, methods of eliminating electricity waste is voltage optimisation. While there are tens of thousands of voltage optimisers installed in the UK, and hundreds of thousands worldwide, it’s still seen as a slightly prosaic and nerdy technology, and is sometimes regarded with a degree of scepticism. Hundreds of thousands of voltage optimisers are quietly saving energy in plant rooms around the world and they could be doing it in more.
Why isn’t voltage optimisation more prominent?
Maybe voltage optimisation suffers from an image problem, it’s not a particularly catchy name for a start, and your layman, myself included, struggles to remember school-level physics and the difference between volts, amps, ohms, and watts. And your Coulombs?
In the UK the golden period of voltage optimisation was the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the energy efficiency business was virtually non-existent and the potential for energy reductions high. Given the size of the opportunity the voltage optimisation market became saturated with manufacturers and, in an effort to compete, claims of savings became progressively more exaggerated. Confidence was dented when promises of 15%, 20%, or even 30% savings weren’t realised.
What is it?
Let’s simplify; electromotive force is the work done to move an electric charge from one point to another measured in volts, and to help describe voltage, it’s sometimes referred to as electric pressure. The voltage at your incoming meter point can vary quite substantially, in the UK average voltage is around 240V but equipment and devices are designed to operate comfortably and efficiently at 220V.
If your incoming voltage is 240V and your equipment can run at 220V you don’t need such a high voltage, or electric pressure, coming through your meter. A voltage optimiser lowers that voltage to an optimal level, which saves energy; you’re effectively reducing and restraining that electric pressure.
What are the benefits?
The main benefit of voltage optimisation is of course reduced energy consumption, and the consequent reduced carbon emissions and costs. Alongside those more obvious benefits are the less obvious ones that save money in the longer term, in a much less obvious way.
A higher voltage forces plant and equipment to work harder and to use more energy than it needs. When a motor works too hard for too long for example, it will fail sooner, or need to be serviced sooner. A reduced voltage prolongs the life of equipment, pushing out the requirement to replace, and can also increase the service intervals, all of which reduces lifetime cost of plant and equipment.
We’re already energy efficient!
One common objection to voltage optimisation is prior investment in energy efficiency. While energy consumption may already have been reduced through efficiency measures, the voltage hasn’t been optimised and savings are still possible. The percentage savings from voltage optimisation remain the same even if energy efficiency measures have been taken, but of course it’s a percentage of a lower consumption, so it takes longer to payback. However, the lower consumption means a smaller voltage optimiser can be deployed at lower cost. Don’t forget, the prolonged equipment life and longer service intervals are still a benefit even if efficiency measures have been implemented.
“Voltage optimisation is a waste of money!”
I’ve seen the bold statement above, but it’s all about context. Does voltage optimisation work in all situations? Not necessarily which is why it’s important to do a non-invasive survey before making any final investment. The type and age of equipment, and the voltage it’s designed to operate at, can dictate whether or not a deployment of voltage optimisation will generate the savings required. A survey before an investment will determine if voltage optimisation is compatible with older and more voltage-sensitive equipment. In general terms though voltage optimisation works in most settings and especially in high volume, constant load environments like hotels, leisure facilities, healthcare settings, educational buildings, supermarkets, retailers, manufacturers, logistics facilities, and airports.
Typical payback period and return on investment
At today’s market prices, around 20-25p/kWh or more depending on when you contracted, the payback on voltage optimisation can be as little as 24 months i.e. a 50% annual return on the total cost of investment, but sometimes three to four years depending on the setting. Voltage optimisation equipment is very, very reliable and can last for decades with limited operation and maintenance costs. To be totally clear, year on year savings, for decades, at no cost after the initial payback period.
If you haven’t yet established the viability of voltage optimisation for your business then you need to consider it as a means of eliminating energy waste. A high energy price environment is the ideal time to at least take a look at what it could save you. Even though prices have eased since the peak of the energy crisis we are still paying double what we were for electricity prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
All of the above is written largely from the perspective of the UK and European marketplace, but voltage optimisation is an important technology in locations where the distribution grid is unreliable. The reduction in waste is still important but actually the power quality becomes much more important in the investment consideration.
In either case, I would encourage any business that hasn’t established the viability of voltage optimisation to do some research and consider it. What’s there to lose?