Energy Efficiency: What Really Works?

Energy Efficiency: What Really Works?

By Sara Schonhardt

Let’s begin by making the distinction between conservation and energy efficiency. Switching lights off and putting electronic devices on timers are ways to conserve energy. It’s about changing people’s behavior. Energy efficiency is more complex, but amounts to greater savings – between 15 and 20 percent compared to conservation’s 5 to 7 percent cutback.

Energy efficiency is the talk of the town lately, and on December 3 it was the subject of a panel moderated by Earth Institute Executive Director Steve Cohen. Standing before a packed room in Columbia’s Lerner Hall, Cohen asked the panel of five energy experts to discuss what energy efficiency means, how it can best be achieved and where potential for change exists.

Jay Bhalla, president of  Willdan Energy Corporation (formerly Intergy), focused first on waste, found mostly in data centers, where 40 percent of the energy load is inefficient. The tech-driven society we live in today offers lifestyle benefits, but it also utilizes a lot of unnecessary energy, Bhalla said.

Take the cable box as an example. The “smart box” that allows you to record shows when you’re away is not a smart box in terms of energy. When it is off, it uses roughly the same amount of energy a refrigerator does when it’s on, said Luke Falk, project manager of New York State Energy and Research Development Authority (NYSERDA) New York City. In other words, “It costs 60 megawatts per baseload to not watch TV in New York City.”

Flat-screen TVs are also a huge source of waste. They use 2½ times as much energy as conventional screens. And even when such appliances are off they are still using energy.

The New York State Energy and Research Development Authority (NYSERDA) currently works with industry experts to formulate more energy-efficient polices and is the main administrator of the $347 million the state of New York currently devotes to such programs. Some day Falk hopes people will have energy-efficiency consultants in the same way they have personal lawyers and financial advisors. But until that happens there are some simple, inexpensive things everyone can do to make their homes more energy friendly.

Change is easier than it seems

Energy-efficient systems are often viewed as being big and expensive, but conservation provides some of the easiest and most cost effective ways to reduce waste. Plugging things into a power strip, balancing your thermostat, using water-saving showerheads and compact florescent bulbs are all cheap ways to reduce energy use.

“Lighting has the quickest payback,” said Peter Meloro, with the Energy Efficiency Programs Department at ConEd. More difficult are long-term improvements, such as updating or controlling antiquated heating systems.

“None of this is rocket science,” noted Lloyd Kass, director of the Energy Department at the New York City Housing Authority, who talked about the savings provided by instant hot water heaters. Current hot water heaters are similar to teapots warming on the stove 24/7, he said.

Desktop computers are another energy hog, according to Bhalla, who referred to a new efficiency operation called desktop localization. In places with many computers in the same area, one server can be used to drive them all. This innovation cuts down on the energy associated with cooling a host of computers connected to one grid.

Bridgett Neely, vice president of Energy Efficiency at the New York City Economic Development Corporation, took the conversation wider by talking about building types and management. The ownership structure of a building is central to the type of energy controls that prove successful, she said. Buildings with full control over operational structures have a vested interest in cutting energy costs. “You have control and can see the fruit of your savings,” Neely noted. “Buildings owned by multi-corporations or being leased by many tenets make it difficult to align those benefits with people making the capital investment in energy efficiency improvements.”

That raised the question of finances, which can serve as a major obstacle to energy efficiency. People looking to finance large home energy investments, such as solar power, find constraints associated with the necessary capital.

One solution could be California’s latest initiative – AB811, which links loans for residential energy improvements to individual’s property taxes. The law is a sign more politicians are “brandishing the sword” of energy-efficient systems. But it is the marketplace where barriers still lay. They key to change, according to Kass, is to make energy efficiency more commercial. “We need a Wal-Mart effect on the energy efficiency industry by more people getting into the market,” he said. 

Bhalla agreed that “Walmartization” is key. “We’ve got to mainstream energy efficiency. But how do you pay for that?”

One of the troubles is the split barrier Neely mentioned, where tenets don’t pay their electricity bills. Again AB811 may prove significant. Let's take the example of a homeowner who takes out a ten-year loan for a $30,000 solar system. That person only wants to pay for that system if he is receiving the benefits, but if he moves after seven years there is little incentive to pay off the investment. Under the new California law, individuals can pay back that loan through their property tax, so those who enjoy the benefits of the system are the ones paying for it.

Figuring out everyone’s role in energy efficiency can be an obstacle in an industry that currently lacks coordination. “The gatekeepers to our relationship with energy consumption are the utilities,” Falk noted. But most people get their energy bills and don’t really know what they mean.

The goal is to create more accountable, integrated energy institutions and then cast the net wide to include all end-users. “We need a Wikipedia approach to energy efficiency,” said Falk, referring to the online encyclopedia written by users.

Where residential change occurs it is up to innovative solutions, but it is hard to count on efficiency gains when human behavior is involved. Falk drew attention to questions of perception: “Would we all agree it would be well lit if half the lights in the room were not on?”

For now, simple solutions are the best way forward as the industry works to create new management and monitoring systems. The industry is still getting its legs, but energy efficiency is possible, and necessary, in this new global climate. It’s up to each individual to keep an eye on how much energy he or she is using, Falk noted. And that is certainly a tried and true solution.