The belief that all of our energy woes can be solved through technology was challenged today in a BBC Science and Environment article on the power of people. The article, written by Mark Kinver, discusses work by Oxford’s Dr. Katy Janda, who says that, while technology is an impressive tool for achieving energy efficiency goals, we “cannot forget the human side” of energy use.
In Dr. Janda’s recently published paper on people power, this senior researcher at the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) explains that people’s choices directly impact their energy use. And, the current information gap between energy producers and consumers has a significant impact on the ability of people to become more efficient in their energy use.
Within the policy and research sphere, Dr Janda said that the “information deficit model” tended to dominate the social dimensions of the energy debate. In other words, households and bill payers lacked the knowledge they needed in order to “correct” their energy-use habits.
She quoted research that compared people’s energy use with shopping in a supermarket that did not list prices on individual items. Instead, the shopper was presented with a bill for the purchases at the end of each month.
As a result, it said, households found it difficult to know how or where they could obtain details of their energy consumption. One development to bridge the “information gap” was the emergence of “feedback” devices, such as smart meters and energy monitor displays.
To see the entire BBC article, you can go to this website.
This past Saturday, 10/30/2010 was National Weatherization Day. Today, Secretary Steve Chu posted about the importance of weatherization as a cheap way to decrease energy use in the US on the Department’s of Energy’s Energy Blog.
The Washington Post is a part of most of my mornings – a staple on my list of “to reads” each day – though I will quickly admit that I’m an online post scanner and not a front-to-back aficionada.
Last month, the post ran a special report on energy legislation in Washington, which included commentary on the quickly fading effects from the deepwater horizon oil spill in the Gulf this summer (note: the Post’s discussion was on the quickly fading animosity toward BP – not the quick cleanup of the Gulf’s waters). Their report included coverage of their forum Energy is Urgent – an event designed to bring together top policymakers, academics, industry leaders, and other energy experts to discuss the future of energy in our country and beyond our borders.
Few issues are more critical to Washington, the nation and the world than the choices we make about how we find, create and use energy. President Obama has pledged to end America’s worrisome dependence on foreign oil. Leaders in Congress and business hope to focus the nation’s entrepreneurial ingenuity on finding more affordable and environmentally friendly ways to heat our homes, run our businesses and power our vehicles.
When discussing critical aspects of the energy sphere, we (generally) clump the discussion into two camps – electricity and transportation. Until the Nissan Leaf, Prius PHEV, or Chevy Volt take-off, it will be fair to say that these two camps are separate (electricity doesn’t power cars, petroleum doesn’t produce electrons). When discussing ending “America’s worrisome dependence on foreign oil” the President and his advisors are not talking about electricity generation (in fact, only 3% of our nation’s electricity comes from petroleum – mostly in Hawaii and Florida) – they are talking about transportation fuels.
In order to decrease our nation’s dependence on foreign oil we have two strategies:
- Produce more oil on U.S. soil
- Use less oil
For the moment, I will ignore the first option – we can get into a discussion on the limitations of our domestic resources and the strategic arguments against depleting them too quickly later on – and will focus on the second, use less.
If the almost non-existent decrease in miles traveled per vehicle during $4.00+ gas prices is any indicator, “use less” does not likely mean conservation in this country (or many others, for that matter)…. instead, it probably means “do the same with less” a.k.a. energy efficiency.
This efficiency strategy was explored by Peter Whoriskey – Washington Post staff writer and a go-to-guy in the quest for knowledge on transportation technology and policy. In Whoriskey’s 9/30/10 article, he explores the parallel gains in vehicle efficiency and in size in today’s vehicles. According to Whoriskey, today’s cars will extract (on average) twice the amount of energy from a gallon of gasoline than they would 25 years ago. So, why do our cars still carry the same low gas mileage (miles per gallon) ratings as they did in 1985?
Size, weight, power.
So far, we (a.k.a. the generalized American consumer) has prioritized power, size, safety, and convenience over fuel savings. According to Mike Jackson, the cheif executive of AutoNation (the country’s largest auto retailer):
Right now, my customers will give up 5 mpg in fuel economy for a better cup holder.
What do we need to do to translate higher energy conversion rates (getting more energy out of our fuel) with higher gas miles (increased energy efficiency)?
How can we shift our priorities away from size, weight, and power to efficiency?
The refrigerator sitting in your kitchen (or garage) today likely requires on the order of 600 W (watts) of dedicated power to keep your milk fresh and ice cream frozen. This dedicated power (your refrigerator is usually on all the time) is responsible for a significant portion of your monthly electric bill (13.7% in the average U.S. household).
According to an e-mail sent yesterday by Brewster McCracken, Executive Director of the Pecan Street Project, new “smart” refrigerators need only 10% (60 W) of the power required for a standard refrigerator. This savings is in part due to sophisticated technologies – but a large part of the savings is due to more simple solutions like better insulation and cooler lights.
The new smart refrigerator exemplifies the opportunities that exist NOW to save energy in our homes and offices. Improved insulation, solar screens, or even creating a shady spot for your air conditioner to sit in can result in significant energy savings for low costs. In fact, energy efficiency projects are quoted at a cost of $350 per unit of capacity (kW) avoided, while new power plants cost at least $900 per unit of capacity (kW) installed.
Sometimes the best (cheapest, easiest) solution is the low-tech solution.
Ohio has reached a significant milestone in its plans to weatherize more than 32,000 homes as a means of achieving greater energy efficiency in the state. According to the State, as of April 30 they had successfully weatherized more than 36% of their target homes, making them one of only seven states to reach this 30% mark. These projects were made possible by $266.7 million in federal funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).
These targeted homes belong to Ohio’s low-income communities, where projects like replacing windows and adding insulation often do not make it into the household budget despite snow-filled winters and high heating bills.