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Energy conservation and efficiency — more is less

January 5, 2011

Here's a riddle. What are the two cheapest, cleanest, safest, most environmentally friendly and most reliable energy technologies available today?

I'll give you a hint. The answers have nothing to do with generating electricity with photovoltaic, wind or any other renewable (or non-renewable) energy technology. And nothing whatsoever to do with extraction, conversion, transportation, or storage of energy.

These are much simpler technologies that are readily available, easily utilized and require little or no investment (other than a willingness on our part to put them to use). What's more, we all can (and should) be employing these technologies in our lives right now.

The answer: conservation and efficiency. And the first step to utilizing these technologies is to commit to making changes in our own lives. Developing and advancing an energy conservation and efficiency culture requires that we all, individually and collectively, choose to make a coherent and lasting reduction in our consumption of energy.

The term "energy conservation" implies using less; in other words, avoiding excessive use or waste. The basic principle of energy conservation has to do with behavior. Americans and Canadians are among the world's largest and most wasteful consumers of energy. Wasteful behavior forces production of more power than we actually need. By applying simple behavioral changes to our lives; turning down thermostats, for example, especially when we are not going to be at home or while we're sleeping, and turning off and unplugging appliances when they are not in use; we can conserve substantial amounts of energy and save considerable amounts of money.

I suppose you could contend that one way of conserving energy is to use it more efficiently. I would have to argue however, that, unlike conservation, efficiency suggests doing as much or more, with less; that is to say, achieving equivalent or superior results, while using less energy. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) says that "energy efficiency is technology-based" and cites compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) as an example. DOE also asserts that "if every American home replaced just one incandescent light with an Energy Star rated CFL, we would save enough energy to light three million homes for a year, save about $600 million in annual energy costs, and prevent 9 billion pounds of greenhouse gas emissions per year, equivalent to those from about 800,000 cars." Imagine if we all changed 2 bulbs, or 5 bulbs, or 10 or 50.

Lighting accounts for close to 20 percent of an average home's electric bill and, since Energy Star-qualified CFLs typically use 75 percent less energy than standard incandescent light bulbs and last up to 10 times longer, replacing just one 60-watt incandescent with a 13-watt CFL can save you approximately $30 to $47 in energy costs over the lifetime of the bulb. Replacing just one 100 watt incandescent light bulb with a 23 watt CFL can save as much as $77.

Efficiency is the idea behind Energy Star-rated appliances, as well. For example, Energy Star-qualified clothes washers use about 30 percent less energy than standard models. And they use less than 50 percent of the water that regular clothes washers use. Many Energy Star-qualified clothes washers also have a greater capacity than conventional models. That means fewer loads are needed to wash comparable amounts of laundry. What's more, if your washer is more than 10 years old, replacing it with a new Energy Star-qualified washer could save $135 a year on utility bills.

According to Amory Lovins, the environmentalist, author and energy efficiency expert who founded Rocky Mountain Institute in 1982, and a man many consider one of the least-known geniuses of our time, energy efficiency is "the largest, least expensive, most benign, most quickly deployable, least visible, least understood, and most neglected way to provide energy services." Lovins, who studied physics and the arts at both Harvard and Oxford Universities, and possesses nine doctorate degrees, all honorary, asserts that Americans can live without fossil fuels and nuclear energy. "The energy problem," he states, "according to conventional wisdom, is how to increase energy supplies ... to meet projected demands. The solution ... ever more remote and fragile places are to be ransacked, at ever greater risk and cost, for increasingly elusive fuels, which are then to be converted to premium forms - electricity and fluids - in ever more costly, complex, centralized, and gigantic plants." Lovins refers to this as the "hard energy path." He is an advocate of the "soft energy path;" boosting fuel and energy efficiency and developing new and renewable energy sources.

Boosting energy efficiency can be thought of as squeezing more utility out of each unit of energy, or delivering the same or more service with less energy. The economic benefits are obvious; consumers and businesses save millions of dollars in energy costs annually. In fact, energy efficient solutions can easily reduce the energy bill for many homeowners and businesses by 20 to 30 percent. And using less energy reduces the need to generate energy at power plants, which cuts greenhouse gas emissions and improves the quality of our air.

Try thinking of energy efficiency as the "fifth fuel," as the International Energy Agency does, and your energy saving actions as producing "negawatts," a term coined by Amory Lovins to describe units of energy that are not used and, therefore, available for some other use. Every negawatt your household or business produces results in immediate cost savings for you, and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (your carbon footprint) to boot. In fact, Lovins maintains that by 'generating' enough negawatts, we can literally eliminate building any new power plants.

Clearly, additional megawatts of power are becoming harder and harder to find. The dangers of off-shore drilling and of deep underground, and surface and mountaintop coal mining, have become painfully self-evident. What's more, many scientists argue that the fossil fuel to steam to generator to transmission process wastes as much as 70 percent of the power produced by the utilities. And once the power reaches its destination (our homes and businesses), we squander away an additional 10 percent to 20 percent through wasteful practices and inefficient electrical systems.

This has to change. We simply cannot go on frittering away such substantial amounts of limited resources.

To learn more about what you can do to reduce your energy consumption and your energy bills, and to make your home more energy efficient, or to learn about available incentives that can help you achieve your energy efficiency goals, contact your local Cornell Cooperative Extension Association office and/or attend Extension-facilitated (and other energy related) workshops when they are made available.



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