Sunday, April 19, 2009

Energy Efficiency and You

Pick up any special “energy and environment “edition of a popular news magazine and you will find a plethora of articles about how America is attempting to solve its energy-related troubles. For example, the April 2009 issue of U.S. News & World Report (titled, “The Energy and Environment Issue”) is full of articles about the “new energy economy,” plug-in hybrid vehicles, energy conservation and efficiency programs and a number of articles informing readers about new technologies and energy sources that could potentially save us from major energy catastrophes in the future.

All of these articles suggest that some kind of change will have to occur before we can establish this new energy economy and start making real progress toward a more environmentally friendly and sustainable energy policy. For example, one article highlights the pros and cons of PHEVs, discussing the fact that advances in battery technology and changes to current infrastructure will be required before the industry can grow. Another article from the U.S. News & World Report addresses new energy efficiency measures and demand response applications that help home owners reduce energy consumption. Technological changes related to everything from smart grids to the physical manner in which homes are constructed will have to change before significant energy savings (on a large scale) can be achieved.

The one thing every article has in common is that all of these changes involve a shift in thinking. For some, this involves rethinking how we, as Americans, understand where our energy comes from, how it is used and its actual impact on the larger world. For others, it may be more about how they can personally benefit from a new energy economy (saving money, better jobs, etc.). For example, before PHEVs will dominate the market, a major change in consumerism will have to occur—in other words, Joe Sixpack and his cousin the plumber will have to decide that a PHEV is either more economical, more environmentally friendly, more masculine, or *insert whatever is important to them here* than their 4WD two ton pickup truck. Before we can achieve maximum electricity savings through energy efficiency measures, home owners will have to come to the conclusion that spending a few more dollars on better insulation will benefit them (or the world at large) in one way or another. Despite the reason (selfish or otherwise), people will have to give up some of their old ways before we as a nation can make real progress toward a more sustainable future.

The point is that change lies with the people. If no one buys the most energy efficient washing machines, or if coal companies refuse to utilize the most efficient processes or if our political leaders ignore cries for change and continue to write ineffective energy policies, all the advances in technology mean absolutely nothing.

The topic of energy efficiency and conservation is a perfect example of how people hold the power to real change. In an interview with Kent Garber, Energy Secretary Steven Chu was asked several questions related to our current energy problems and the solutions we currently have that could help us save energy, money and clean up our environment. When asked, “What’s the first step?” to solving our energy problems, Chu stated that, “The biggest gains, in terms of decreasing the country’s energy bill, the amount of carbon dioxide we put into the atmosphere, and our dependency on foreign oil, will come from energy efficiency and conservation in the next 20 years. Make no doubt about it. That’s where everybody who has really thought about the problem thinks the biggest gains can and should be.”

Touting that energy efficiency could be “very sexy” (contradicting Mark Strama’s statements from earlier in the semester), he went on to say that, “you’ve also got to convince the people-they’ve got to believe in their heart and soul-that a small, minor upfront cost will actually decrease their monthly bill.”

Again, the focus in on the people—the actual consumers of energy. Space-age insulation can be developed, super efficient LEDs put on the market, and energy consumption meters handed out to home owners, but unless the people actually shift their thinking and take the necessary steps to install such efficiency measures and effectively utilize demand response gadgets, no real change will occur.

In fact, unfortunately, some studies have suggested that energy efficiency measures do nothing to actually decrease energy consumption. Because people are saving money by using CFLs, they don’t bother to turn them off when they leave home. Or, if a homeowner installs a new A/C unit, they might turn the thermostat down a few extra degrees in the summer because their electric bill won’t increase. The result is that yes, they are technically using energy more efficiently, but not necessarily decreasing overall demand. (There are numerous articles discussing this phenomenon; a simple Google search for “energy efficiency” and the “rebound effect” will lead you in the right direction).

I feel as if increased consumer education and a change in the manner in which these efficiency measures and programs are presented to utility customers could greatly increase their overall effectiveness. With a little more education and the creation of new social norms (in terms of energy usage, etc.), we should be able to tackle our energy problems more quickly and efficiently.


czak said...

The idea of the rebound effect is really interesting because it exposes the need for incentive to, as a consumer, do more than just "invest" in energy saving measures. Just as the post explained it doesn't do any good to have energy saving appliances if you use the savings to increase your consumption. I would argue that this is the largest obstacle to a shift in American thinking. It's not as much about getting people to put that upfront cost in for new, better technology, because eventually the public will understand that it is beneficial from a price perspective and that is what really motivates people. It seems that it's more about giving people an incentive to just use less. Period. Like possibly some sort of energy tax credits or penalties for heavy users. Just a thought.

Anonymous said...

Great topic. In general, I think it's difficult for people to think about and weigh the longterm benefits against the short-term, upfront costs of efficiency measures. That's partly where tax credits or incentives come in to play - to help bear the brunt of the initial investment.

I also wonder how long the memory of the public lasts. When gas hit $4/gallon last year, people started making changes, but I wonder what people think now...