The Beauty of Efficiency

So our transportation is 25% of our carbon emissions-what about the other 75%? Let us embark on chapter 2 in my series on topics presented in the Sept ’06 Scientific American. Next up will be Eberhard K. Jochem’s (a Swiss professor of Energy Economics) article on Energy Efficiency. Why? Bang for the Buck. Again stats, unless otherwise noted, come from his article.

Here at the Mia and Beo household we are vegetarians. The reasons are legion, but the biggest for me is the environmental impact of meat (shocker!). See it takes about 10 times more calories to make a 16oz steak than a pound of beans-and do you know how many meals you could get from a pound of beans? I don’t either, but more than a you can off a phat steak. The whole deal breaks down to physics (I guess everything does) and the degradation of energy converting from one form to another. The same thing happens in all forms of energy, including the electricity you put thru your home. Say you have a nice smelly, polluting, coal energy plant supplying your electricity (chances are you do) and for arguments sake makes 500 megawatts. Due to friction and heat losses, by the time it gets to its end users that 500 megawatts is down to roughly 300 megawatts. Now you and everyone else in your city goes to turn on their toaster or whatever, the energy availible to actually do the work drops to about 150. Crap! Run the math more exactly and you get a loss of about 66% with the two conversions of energy-and that gets worse the farther you live from the power plant. And this is even before you as a consumer get a crack at it! This is why it is critical to reduce our energy use at the end-because the savings are magnified immensely over savings in energy production.

Enter the Green Building. As my faithful will remember, here in our little WI hamlet we have now passed legislation that all new commercial and government buildings will be built to LEED silver standards-typically at an increase in efficiency of about 30%. This month’s meeting I have got residential standards on the agenda and we will be debating LEED-H vs. Energy Star. As our community is still growing this is huge. We are progressive in this regard, but by no means cutting edge. Check out the Swiss Re Tower in London. This breathtakingly beautiful building saves 50% over a conventional building’s energy, by using natural ventilation and lighting, passive solar heating, and to cap it off it was built with materials that can be easily recycled should the need arise. Loves it! Construction was completed in 2004, and it joined a growing world wide community of green buildings. Less spectacular due to its focus on function over form is the Szencorp Building in Melbourne Australia. Proving that you can’t judge a book by its cover, this fantastic bit of architecture boasts a 70% increase in efficiency with gee-whiz items like a dehumidification system that both cools and dries the building and ceramic fuel cells to provide both electricity and heat. Using fuel cells on site reduces the energy lost due to transport, and its constant steady supply negates the need for large battery banks while making energy at twice the efficiency of a coal fired plant. Nice. On a more residential scale, simply nothing beats the Earthship for that Uncle Owen charm. If you can get past the fact that Stormtroopers may barge in at any moment to look for some missing droids, you can enjoy the sublime knowledge that your new home has virtually zero emissions, and no energy inputs other than your food and communications channels. It creates its own heat, collects and filters its own water, and processes its own (human) waste on site. It is very, very hard to live lighter on the land than in one of these. I may never live in one of these, but an hour or two cruising their site will expand your knowledge of integrated building systems 100 fold and if we ever move, I will incorporate many of the systems into our new home-those cisterns are gorgeous!

The technology for green buildings is here-now. But if you think the time it takes for an efficient car to reach market impact level was long-building life is measured in decades not years. So in instances like my village where we are experiencing massive growth, green building can have a huge impact, but in established communities with existing structures, retrofits are in order to save energy without incurring massive construction costs. First up is the ubiquitous Compact Fluorescent Bulb. Energy savings of 40-70%, life cycles of 10 times longer, and costs that will be paid back 10 fold in its life time… its no wonder these little beauties are so popular with the Eco aware. The trendy LCD computer screen is another, and much hipper option. Not only do they produce significantly less heat, but they cut electricity usage by 60% and are much more recyclable. How much impact can swapping out some appliances have? When backed by no nonsense regulations, alot! There are 150 million fridges in the US (Once China ramps up they will have a billion)-by updating them all to 2001 standards vs the old one in 1974 will save 40 gigawatts of power. Putting that number in perspective imagine one of those giant wind turbines like you see in California. Then imagine 15,999 more right next to it. Sobering isn’t it? If your refrigerator is older than 10 years-recycle it as soon as possible and buy a new energy star model. It will pay for itself in 4-5 years and will most likely keep your food fresher too. Do me a favor and avoid the one with the TV built in it ok?

This last fact was brought to you for the explicit reason of giving the importance that governments play in molding our energy future. Convincing 150 millions families to buy an energy star fridge next time is impossible-mandating it is relatively simple and drives innovation. Simply put: Global Warming is huge. Each one of us has a vital role to play in the choices we make every day, but Congress, or if not them then the states like California, must take the lead and set standards to drive innovation and, frankly, to save the Earth as we know it. The kicker is we have nothing to lose-energy is expensive and saving it makes incredibly good economic sense. Start-up costs can be prohibitive, especially for the lower income who need the savings most and this is were rebates are critical. This can, and is working across the world. Being born in the most affluent country on the Earth has given us power beyond our ken-and with great power comes great responsibility.

Be the change!


3 Responses

  1. Brilliant! Very exciting stuff.

    Note to self: locate compact fluorescents on next visit to grocery store.

  2. Good for you!

    We picked one up at farm and fleet today for my son’s night lamp. The price is really coming down- they are under $3 each, and some here in WI come with rebates on the package for $2 back.

    From :
    If every American home changed out just 5 high-use light fixtures… each family would save more than $60 every year in energy costs, and together we’d keep more than one trillion pounds of greenhouse gases out of our air – equal to the emissions of 8 million cars… equivalent to the annual output of more than 21 power plants.

    Why aren’t these things the law?!

  3. Thanks for the great review of a great article!

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