Sunday, September 19, 2004

Energy Conservation 

Every time someone suggests covering the planet in solar cells or windmills or something, my eyes always roll involuntarily. I'm just not interested in such fanciful things. So when I saw Saving Energy Without Derision mentioned on Slashdot, I was pretty interested. I hadn't heard of Alan Zelicoff, but when I saw the subtitle of the book ("One household's real (and reasonably painless) experience in energy conservation"), I was very interested to hear what he would say.

Just because I think the Kyoto Protocol was idiotic and most "renewable" energy sources are unrealistic doesn't mean I'm hostile to increasing our energy efficiency. On the contrary, we're basically throwing away money for laziness if we do that. When I read his realistic appraisal of renewable energy sources, I suddenly became interested in the rest of what he had to say:

There are only two possible answers: either we decrease our use of electricity (conservation) or increase production from other sources. Many “environmentalists” believe that renewables can do the latter. The problem is that even the increase in US demand (let alone the existing demand load) is so huge as to swamp even the most optimistic assumptions about how many windfarms or solar panels we can build and install.

Let’s take an example: in New Mexico, the local power company (Public Service Company of New Mexico) in collaboration with Florida Power and Light has just finished the installation of a 200 Mega-watt (peak production capacity) windfarm in the high plains, about 200 miles east of Albuquerque and it is just about the largest windfarm in the US. How much electricity does this windfarm make in a year? The calculation is easy: from data published by the National Weather Service, we know that the wind blows about 35% of time, on average, in and
around Tucumcari, NM where the windfarm is located. And, since there are about 9,000 hours in a year we find that:

200 * 1 million watts * 9,000 hours * 35% = 600 million kw-hrs per year

Looked at another way, the US’ largest windfarm installation in 2003 makes just under 1% of the increase in demand for electricity during that same year. Overall, there were about 15 similarly sized wind-farms installed in 2003 in North America. Thus, only 15% of new demand was met by renewable resources (photovoltaic was, unfortunately, several orders of magnitude less contributory due to costs). So even if you think that windfarms and other renewable energy resources are a good way to make electricity (and I happen to believe this), they aren’t going to make much of a dent in fossil fuel burning as the primary source for our electricity.

The alert reader will have also noticed that hydroelectric power is completely tapped out in the US, and due to drought – particularly in the northwest US and some of Canada) – its contribution has actually dwindled somewhat in the past few years. There is no more hydroelectric energy to exploit in the US, and its advertised attractiveness as a “clean” source of energy maybe a bit overstated (considering the impact on fish, the fishing industry and even methane gas production due to rotting plants that are drowned in rising reservoirs every year).


Nuclear power produces about 20% of all of the electricity in the US. It generates no CO2 because there are no chemical reactions involved in the reactor. Rather, atoms are literally split at their core (the “nucleus”), releasing heat. Of course, there is a lot of radioactive waste created, but at least it is all in one spot. As you’ll see in a minute, when we burn coal, we release many tons of radioactive material into the atmosphere every year - out of sight and out of mind (and we may be out of our minds to be doing this. I’ll give you the facts below and you
can decide).

It’s interesting to note that even though there hasn’t been a single new nuclear plant built in the US for over 20 years, and even though our total electricity production is increasing, nuclear power is holding its own in terms of percentage of electricity generated. This has been made possible by much more efficient running of the existing nuclear plants including the reduction of the time that plants have to be shut down for refueling. In addition, the existing nuclear plants that were originally planned for dismantlement after 30 years have been granted licensing extensions for, on average, an additional 10 years or so. New nuclear energy should be considered in the mix of future electricity resources, in my view. The opposition to it is mostly based on politics and very little on science; I’ll comment more on this later.

When someone can talk realistically about this stuff, I actually want to listen.

I've long held that the key to our energy problems will be using technology to improve what we have, rather than some bold, far-reaching initiative requiring massive coordination and investment. The potential in LED lights and more efficient gas engines for cars is staggering. Already you may have noticed that your city has switched traffic lights from incandescent lights to LED arrays. As Shawn said, when you show a city planner the bottom-line number on how many millions of dollars they will save due to a slower rate of bulb replacement and the higher efficiency of the LEDs, it's a no-brainer for them to run around replacing them all.

I've only read the first half so far (and don't agree with everything he says), but fortunately, Dr. Zelicoff has some very practical advice that people could implement without noticing any major difference in their lives, while still saving a significant amount of energy and money. Zelicoff points to many other things you could do that are in the same vein. For example, he notes that if you were to turn down your water heater so that you didn't have to dilute the water in your shower with cold water, you probably would shower and do dishes just as comfortably after you learn the new settings on the water dials, but you would save tons of electricity, since your water heater will keep the water at that temperature at all times. Furthermore, you could get some extremely inexpensive insulation for your water heater and the piping in your house (not to mention your walls and attic). He reports that simply by replacing their decade-old refrigerator with a new, more energy-efficient one that wasn't available previously, they immediately started seeing savings. These are things that could save you so much money, you would probably recover the costs almost immediately, and you probably wouldn't notice any difference in how your house worked, or need to think about them anymore.

And the savings are significant. In his case, they pay $200 a year in total energy costs, while the average house pays $900 a year. If you could show people that bottom line, that would probably motivate them to start implementing some of these things. Just think of the economic stimulus, as well!

As for the rest of Dr. Zelicoff's suggestions, I think there's good news and bad news. The bad news is that many of his suggestions involve behavior modifications, like unplugging clocks and appliances you're not using, line-drying your clothes, turning off the furnace pilot light during the summer, turning down the thermostat and night, and so forth. For whatever reason, people just don't seem to be into these sorts of inconveniences when aggregated.

However, I think the good news is that most of these can be addressed. Line-drying clothes is just not an option for many people, but I don't see why some intelligent design couldn't address many other issues. For instance, in places I have worked, they installed motion sensors that turn off the lights when it appeared that no one was around. Occasionally, if you are being very still, they make a mistake and turn off your lights while you are still around. A simple hand-wave fixes the problem instantly. Why can't a similar reasoning be applied to other appliances. If the lights aren't on in your kitchen, why should your kitchen appliances (refrigerator-aside) be drawing power?

In fact, it isn't that difficult to imagine the house of the future having a small server in a closet somewhere. In addition to providing the functionality Mike talks about here, it could control your power usage. For example, it could take care of making sure that when the kitchen isn't in use, your blender, microwave, and toaster aren't drawing any power. It could also take care of your furnace and thermostat at certain times of the year or day, or if it thinks you're not around (if you do the light sensor thing). Or heck, it could be programmed to not heat up your water all night, instead starting at 5am and ending at noon, and so forth. Of course, this would use energy itself, but it would probably be profitable overall.

Of course, this begs the question of why this sort of thing isn't more common. I imagine the problem is that people want the cheapest house they can get, and homebuilders want the fattest margins they can get and they don't get any cut of your energy savings. Adding together all these energy savers is obviously a net savings in the long run, but homebuilders don't have any incentive to participate there, and people probably don't know about most of the options that are available (I know I certainly didn't know about many of the things he talks about) or just how much money they can save. However, this sort of inefficiency always screams "opportunity" to me. It seems to me that someone could provide a service that coordinates and does all the work in one go; really making the process painless could take a share of the consumer's surplus that goes along with implementing these changes. You call them up, they come over, look things over, and essentially show you that bottom-line per-year savings number.

In the end, making this stuff happen is about making it make sense for people's wallets, and if you look at the problem from that perspective, you're likely to make more progress.

Of course, many of those "environmentalists" *should* be taken with a grain of salt: they are just really convincing strawmen (convincing in that you actually believe the strawman perspective represents the body of scientists and engineers who are environmentalists). There's this whole meme that says "we gotta save the environment from those environmentalists." I guess people want to feel superior to people who tell them that what they're doing is wrong.

Anyway, emotions aside, one appliance you didn't mention was the air conditioner. I think that without major advances in insulation (like nanotech vacuums: there's no better form of insulation than a vacuum), air conditioners are going to be very expensive. It's ok for me to say that in always pleasant San Diego, but that's going to be a major source of pain for many other people. However, as my father, who grew up in the 30s and 40s, knew: you can live through a hot Indiana summer without air conditioners just fine. It is, however, a pretty major life-style change.

Without superinsulation solutions, we can plant trees for shade in the summer, and just not have the window blinds open very much. Return of the cave dweller.

Also, you can save money and energy by joining a CSA and having your own garden.

I think what politicians should be doing is taxing negative externalities. I guess it'd have to be a part of the WTO. And I don't care where the taxes actually go (tax cut?): but it's high time we started showing the true costs of products. After that, we gotta tax energy more, to encourage conservation (again, I don't care where the taxes go; but might I recommend a large energy project like the Manhattan Project?).
And....the eyes are rolling.
Actually Comrade Schonle, around 11,000 people died in France during the summer of 2003 due to a heat wave. Old people, who are an increasing proportion of our population, in particular are less able to regulate their body temperatures. AC could have prevented a lot of these deaths. I think it's funny how the first thing you want to regulate is something that doesn't affect you. Why are you adverse to fixing huge power inefficiencies that include incentives people will actually respond to, such as electricty bill savings. Instead you want to define people's preferences for them. Your response is the exact reason people dismiss self-proclaimed environmentalists.
Normally I don't reply to trolls, but you Anonymous (is it davidst?) have some completely missed the point.

Where exactly do I mention AC should be regulated? I don't... Why you jumped to that conclusion is anyone's guess. I said that AC was going to be A PROBLEM. No where did I say people shouldn't have it. I just said it's going to be very expensive.

Also, it's ridiculous to call me Comrade when the environmental solution I proposed was a market-based solution. I practically even said it could be an upperclass tax cut. (Something I'm opposed to, but this is David's blog, afterall, and I have no clue what warranted his eye rolling.)

*sigh* perhaps I shouldn't respond to trolls, even when they grossly misrepresent me.
While searching for new best portable air conditioner info for my house I stumbled onto your blog. I totally agree!

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