Sustainability Metrics and Assessment Techniques for Energy Systems

Sustainability Metrics and Assessment Techniques for Energy Systems

This project is funded by the United Engineering Foundation

While the term “sustainability” is in common use, there are wide variations in its definition and how the concept is used to evaluate energy systems. The different definitions are likely to imply or require different means of assessing whether a given energy system is sustainable. Further, energy system sustainability assessments frequently focus on carbon only, often ignoring other environmental, economic, regulatory requirement and societal impacts in their assessments. Most frequently, Life Cycle Assessments (LCA) are used as a tool for evaluating energy systems. Most LCA methods are limited to environmental assessments. Many LCA arrive at misleading conclusions because of inconsistent definitions of the boundaries, different selection of LCA stages, different metrics, or different assumptions about process parameters. In addition, complexities of using LCA prevents wide spread use and companies and other end users are being compelled to search for a “front end” tool that will provide evaluation and comparison of products or families of products and processes. There is need for a well structured, transparent approach for evaluating energy systems that includes the three dimensions of sustainability: environmental, economic and societal.

While LCA providers comply with voluntary consensus standards (e.g. ISO 14040:2006, the International Standard Organization, Environmental management. Life cycle assessment. Principles and framework. and ISO 14044:2006, Environmental management – Life cycle assessment – Requirements and guidelines) there are still complexities that compel companies and users to look for a simpler approach that will provide evaluation and comparison of products or family of products without having to have complex LCA’s conducted. Providers of LCA are beginning to look at developing such tools to assist decision making and comparative purposes for sustainability. The key is to develop a tool that still provides value without being too complicated, yet is thorough. There is an opportunity to partner with LCA providers to help develop such a tool for the cross board analysis in energy systems, and can also be used by students as well.

The scope for such an approach requires the inclusion of all the engineering disciplines as well as other disciplines outside of engineering. The engineering professional societies, through the Founder Society Carbon Management project (FSCM), have an opportunity to integrate the engineering contribution and engage with others to enhance the ability to more effectively carry out the evaluation of energy systems. The objective of this project is to add clarity to the sustainability knowledge base and improve the professional society effectiveness for participating in the evaluation of energy systems.

The specific objectives for this project are to:

1. Assess and select metrics for evaluating sustainability for energy systems,
2. Develop a simple check-list/guide for energy system LCAs
3. Expand LCA technique to reflect sustainability definition(s) and metrics – LCA being used to include environmental, economic and societal measures; update check-list/guide
4. Apply the technique for selected test cases
5. Explore the need for corresponding standards for an energy system LCA check-list

Presentations on the Projects:

February 10, 2012
Workshop: Sustainability Metrics for Carbon Management Technologies: Use of LIfe Cycle and Full Cost Accounting, Lise Laurin

July 2012
Metrics for Biofuels, John Carberry

December 17, 2012
Presentation to the Engineers Forum on Sustainability: Sustainability Metrics for Energy Systems, Veronika Rabl 

December 20, 2012
Presentation to the Center for Sustainable Technology Practices: Metrics for Energy Systems, Veronika Rabl

If you are interested in engaging in an ongoing virtual dialog on energy metrics, please email us at carbonmanagement@foundersocieties.org.