Category Archives: Energy

Energy Efficiency: Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic

In “Is Efficiency Sufficient?” (prepared for the European Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, eceee, with funding from the European Climate Foundation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ENERGY STAR Program), Chis Calwell notes that we’ve successfully increased efficiency, but energy loads are increasing. We could start a Manhattan project for efficiency, but unless we have a serious cultural shift in our approach not only to energy but to material, we will continue our trend to increased energy consumption.

The elephant in the living room is, well, the living room! When I was growing up we had a huge black & white TV in the living room. The lights dimmed when it came on, it took two and a half minutes to warm up and baked the paint off the shelf above it. But we turned it on a half hour a day (well, an hour on Sundays, for “Lassie” and “Walt Disney Presents,” the show before the “Wide World of Color”).

Free market capitalism runs on gains not reductions. If we are to rely on the market for solutions, there must be some real economic gain for reduction that is greater than cost reduction. In today’s world that would mean a sliding scale for energy that is opposite of what we have now: paying less per kWh for electricity if you use less rather than less if you use more. This certainly isn’t the “natural” order of free market, the free market relies on scarcity to increase price across the board. In Europe, they’ve increased the cost of energy “artificially” through taxes, acknowledging that the free market is severely short-sighted. In this country our gasoline taxes are going down as percentage of the cost because they are levied per gallon rather than per dollar. And there is no one who would suggest raising those taxes if we can’t raise taxes on the wealthy.

To a large extent this is also biological. Natural selection has favored those in our species that have amassed wealth, first in the form of stored food, now in the form of a much broader array of material—TVs, automobiles, computers, weapons, etc.—but the future of the status quo, if not the species, relies on cooperation. Perhaps if we can get our big brains to override our reptilian ones in this regard, we’ll be able to turn around. Otherwise we may be in for the most Malthusian of population curves.

Whenever I write something like this I ask myself, “How in the world does this help?” I’m not sure. I’m a “glass half full” kind of guy, though. I’ve seen this kind of trend before and often it ends with an abrupt shift when there is some kind of catalytic event. So I remain optimistic that a catalytic event will preclude an apocalyptic one.

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Whither Shall We Lead?

When I was a kid growing up, the cheap metal windup toys were all made in Japan. We considered things from Japan to be cheap and poorly made. Sometime in the 1960’s, though, Japan’s reputation began to change. Nikon was the first Japanese company I heard of that was known for quality. Nikon cameras were the top of the line in the 1970’s and were priced accordingly.

Not long after that, Sony began to be recognized as a solid maker of stereo equipment (that’s what we called audio equipment back then).  In 1977 Sony introduced the “Walkman” (although they eventually settled a patent lawsuit for over $10Mil) and continued to be innovators not only in product design, but in marketing. As the Big Three automakers went from the Mustang, Camaro and Barracuda of the sixties to the Pinto, Vega and Gremlin of the seventies, Toyota, Datsun (now Nissan) and Subaru were beginning to import solid, reliable vehicles that now dominate the world market.

Still, the US has always held the leadership of some market. We still dominate in Information Technology, but we are losing ground there. One area that we should be leading in is slipping away alarmingly quickly and that’s energy efficiency and alternative energy production.

Here in the North Country of New York, we have two major wind farms: Maple Ridge on the Tugg Hill and Noble Wind on the Northeast Adirondacks. We watched the towers, turbines and blades get trucked in from the Port of Montreal where they arrived from Europe. The Spanish wind giant, Iberdrola, is the company that wants to develop wind farms in between these two. Both power companies in Vermont are now owned by a Quebec energy company. New York’s nuclear plants are owned by a company based primarily in Britain.

The irony is that we have the largest consumption of energy of any country and we are one of the largest energy users per capita in the world. Yet we can’t compete in the alternative energy market. We are even losing our conventional energy production and distribution to foreign owners.

If we don’t turn this around, we will be the first generation in the history of the country to leave less to our children than our parents left to us. So kids, start working now, all you stand to inherit is the mortgage.

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Energy Code Moving (Inexorably) Towards Net-Zero

Sometimes things happen faster than you expect. No, the new Energy Star standard, v 3.0, slated for mid-2012, doesn’t require houses to produce as much power in a year as they use, but there’s a chance that v 4.0 will. Currently, houses account for 40% of our energy usage, reducing that to 0% for new homes would be a huge step forward. Granted, the actual impact on energy consumption might be small as new homes aren’t a large share of the market, but the idea that we can would spur us along.

The next step is how to weatherize existing homes to that level. A major hurdle is siting. New homes can be sited so they take advantage of sun, but moving existing houses isn’t an option. Even tightening up the envelope and increasing the insulation to achieving a good heating slope (BTUs/HDD/sq. ft) can be expensive. Still, energy is pretty cheap here in the USA compared to Canada and Europe and when it does rise in cost, it will force technological advances in weatherization materials and techniques.

It’s an exciting time to be in the field of energy! Things are changing so fast that I have trouble practicing what I’ve learned before the prevailing wisdom changes. I guess that’s a good thing, at least I don’t get stuck in the old practices!

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Aerial Solar Tour

Today my old friend Robbie Klein invited me to take a ride in the airplane he built to take some photos of some solar systems that have been installed in the area. Scott Shipley from Northern Lights Energy, a veteran installer in the area, gave me a list of possible installations (his and others) that might be interesting. We started with my house since it was the easiest to find and then progressed down the list.

It was my first shot at navigating from the air (as well as my first time in a plane that small) and we had limited luck at best. Robbie was great at banking the plane so I could get a good shot, but my stomach was less enthusiastic about the maneuver. The simple digital camera performed pretty well (and I’m sure that looking through the viewfinder of an SLR would have sent my stomach elsewhere), so I have only myself to blame for the mediocre quality of the photos. Still, worth sharing.

Thanks to Robbie and Scott!

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