energy efficiency


The Economist points out one of the paradoxes of energy efficiency:

Solid-state lamps, which use souped-up versions of the light-emitting diodes that shine from the faces of digital clocks and flash irritatingly on the front panels of audio and video equipment, will indeed make lighting better. But precedent suggests that this will serve merely to increase the demand for light. The consequence may not be just more light for the same amount of energy, but an actual increase in energy consumption, rather than the decrease hoped for by those promoting new forms of lighting.

The light perceived by the human eye is measured in units called lumen-hours. This is about the amount produced by burning a candle for an hour. In 1700 a typical Briton consumed 580 lumen-hours in the course of a year, from candles, wood and oil. Today, burning electric lights, he uses about 46 megalumen-hours—almost 100,000 times as much. Better technology has stimulated demand, resulting in more energy being purchased for conversion into light.

This phenomenon is known as the rebound effect or Jevon’s paradox. Saving the environment is not as easy as it seems.

Source: Marc Roberts Cartoons

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Martin LaMonica of CNET provides an interesting, behind-the-scenes view of some of the current challenges in operating the electricity grid.

More data means that grid operators have a far better idea of whether problems may be brewing, rather than finding out only a few moments before impact. Going forward, better system awareness paves the way for more wind and solar power, said Chadalavada.

“If we have these perturbations because of the intermittent nature of renewables, we would like to know about it ASAP and not have to wait even four or eight seconds because that’s a whole dispatch cycle for us,” he said. “Instantaneous rebalancing is much better done with these sensors.”

If, for example, the wind kicks up more than expected, the energy dispatch system could tell a power producer to scale back. Or if the wind dies down, operators could dispatch energy storage. Right now, managing wind is not a big difficulty because it’s such a small portion of the total mix. Although it’s not sure to be built, 3,000 megawatts’ worth of wind power is projected to be added to the New England grid in the next three years, which would be about 10 percent of the total capacity.

With an ambitious 1.5 GW of wind on the drawing board and more to come, Ontario will face similar challenges integrating new sources of renewable energy into its electricity grid.

Traditional, incandescent light bulbs are on the verge of being banned by governments in many jurisdictions throughout the developed world. In their place, we are encouraged to use compact florescent lightbulbs. But does nanny really know best?

To discover CFLs’ negatives, try setting a romantic mood with a dimmer switch. This is, at best, a hit or miss proposition. Scarier still, just drop one onto your kitchen floor. Its internal mercury is highly toxic. If spilled, it requires something approximating a Superfund cleanup. The Environmental Protection Agency warns that if a CFL breaks on one’s apparel or bedspread, “Do not wash such clothing or bedding because mercury fragments in the clothing may contaminate the machine and/or pollute sewage” (emphasis added).

CFLs should be discarded at recycling centers. Hundreds of millions of busy Americans, however, will toss these dangerous bulbs in the trash, atop table scraps and junk mail. CFLs will clog landfills from coast to coast. Decades hence, mercury will have leeched into the environment. Americans will wonder why people are suffering brain, kidney, and lung damage. Medical visits will yield lawsuits. And yet another national disaster will erupt, courtesy of Washington, D.C. 

ht: International Liberty

At this point, what the benefit of smart meters might be for consumers is unclear.

At today’s event, Donald Paul, the former CTO for Chevron, now the Executive Director of the USC Energy Institute, asked, “It remains to be seen [what] the benefit for the customer [will be]. The value for the consumer in the smart grid is not the money savings.  What’s the value proposition?”   

“The smart grid better be cool for consumers — otherwise, they’re not going to adopt it,” according to Gene Wang, CEO of People Power.”The killer app is waiting to be found,” according to Sylvia Burks of law firm Pillsbury.

Conrad Eustis, a Director at Portland General Electric, said, “The killer app is a battery home back-up system, not the one in the EV — we need a transaction cost for that,” adding, “One change in smart appliances will give us 100 gigawatts of capacity.”

The killer app is probably not smart meters.  Those are just “cash registers for the utilities,” according to Jeff Tolnar, the CTO of BPL Global.

Is the killer app the home energy dashboard like those offered by Tendril, EnergyHub and others?

The killer residential energy application engages the energy consumer and places the consumer in a partnership with the utility.  It’s not easy, it’s not sexy and it doesn’t look like a shiny new smart meter.  But it creates a value that the majority of customers understand.

And we haven’t figured it out yet.

So, if I interpret this correctly, “cash registers for the utilities” is the main reason we have spent all this money on these things.

In an “Earth Day” press release today, TD Bank inadvertently makes the link as to why energy prices are rising despite being awash in surplus supplies of electricity and natural gas:

Karen Clarke-Whistler, Chief Environment Officer, TD, predicts that solar panels will be standard on homes in 10 years. “Energy prices are only going to go one way, and that is up, so homeowners will be looking for ways to reduce costs,” said Clarke-Whistler. “With an increasing number of provincial government-backed incentive programs being rolled out across the country, we expect the solar products market to evolve rapidly. We can expect product innovation, a wider choice of products and increased affordability as more manufacturers enter the market.” [my bold]

If energy costs are inevitably going up it has as much to do with governments bilking the rate payer so they can subsidize high-cost sources of energy such as solar PV.

The fact that consumers would respond to such bribes, though, is not surprising. Without the bribes, many would spend their money differently. Instead of trashing their current furnace to replace it with a subsidized, high-efficiency model, they just might hang on to it for a while longer, and spend their savings on other things. Installing solar panels on their roof tops wouldn’t merit a second look if not for the massive subsidies. And somehow TD thinks it is prudent to pile on and up the ante.

In the realm of energy, economic considerations have become secondary. The decision faced by the consumer is no longer — should I keep my older furnace and pay a little more for energy or buy a new furnance and save on my energy bill? — but how big is my tax credit?

The TD Canada Trust Green Home Poll also revealed that 66% of Canadians say that tax credits would make them more likely to make energy efficient upgrades to their homes. “This shows that financial incentives really work when it comes to encouraging energy efficient home upgrades, so we hope that our Green Mortgage rebate will encourage our customers to consider renewable energy sources for their homes,” says Wisniewski.

Once hooked on subsidies, consumers come to expect it and may even hold out in the expectation of even bigger bribes in the future. The inevitable result is that the taxpayer ends up subsidizing many choices that consumers would have eventually made anyways.

Is it any wonder energy costs are going up?

Jeff Rubin points out one of the inconvenient facts of energy efficiency: the more efficiently we use it, the more of it we tend to use.

From our homes to our vehicles, what do we do when greater energy efficiency lowers the cost of consuming energy? We consume more of it, not less. And the rebound created in demand as the cost falls nullifies all the conservation gains that greater efficiency made possible. Paradoxically, efficiency gains encourage us to consume more of the very resource we are trying to conserve.

With that in mind, I told Buddy I was ordering the old mid-efficiency model. Not only does it cost half as much as the high-efficiency furnace, but I’ll probably end up burning less gas as well.

Back in May, Google announced the roll out of its PowerMeter software that would allow electricity users to monitor their electricity use on a time-of-day basis. I was excited by the announcement since the software would link into the “smart” meter that my electricity provider, Toronto Hydro, had recently installed at my residence. Toronto Hydro was one of the initial partners in Google’s PowerMeter initiative.

Imagine my surprise, then, after calling Toronto Hydro to find out how to access my information that the representative didn’t know anything about it. Another representative who took my call a few days later still had no news about the program, but upon further investigation discovered that the partnership did indeed exist. He thanked me for asking, since he now knew something to tell other customers who asked about it.

Peggy at Energy Circle asks whether consumers are an afterthought:

As a resident of Toronto, I am privileged to live in a house equipped with a Smart Meter provided by Toronto Hydro. I also work at Energy Circle, which means I have been witness to the extraordinary power of real-time monitoring. Yesterday, I contacted Hydro to find out when we could expect our Smart Meter to start providing us with real-time data about our electricity use, so that we could start to benefit from the lessons gained by tracking and reducing our energy usage. The news isn’t great.

I should point out that we have been psyched about Smart Meters from the start. They have the potential to reveal to us the nuances of our electricity use, information that we can use to save energy and money. They are a resource, attached to our house by our utility, with seemingly endless potential for enlightenment. So those of us who have Smart Meters are the lucky ones. We are also after-thoughts.

Smart meters have great potential to modify our energy habits, benefiting individual consumers, as well as broader society if it allows us to deploy our generating capacity more efficiently. Yet this apparent lack of interest on the part of Toronto Hydro to engage its customers only reinforces widespread scepticism that the purpose of the new smart meters is to extract more revenues from electricity users, rather than helping them to conserve energy and reduce their energy bills.

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