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Global Snap, Crackle, Pop

(originally published in the Chattanooga Pulse Magazine)


Efficient and renewable are the energy ways of the future.

Energy efficiency is not sexy. You can’t really see it. You can’t point to it. But it has enormous potential to affect the planet’s growing thirst for power. According to a recent World Energy Outlook report: “By 2030, energy efficiency and behavior change will offset more CO2 than all new wind, solar and alternative energy generation combined.”

Say what?

Think about it: Since the 1970s, the country’s economy has grown 300 percent while our energy demand has only grown by about 50 percent. How did that happen? “We have built things lighter, brighter, leaner and better over the past 40 years,” says Ray Segars, principal of Expo Energy and former executive with the Georgia Power Company. And things are still getting more efficient by leaps and bounds.

We hear a lot about solar and wind power. Maybe it’s because renewables are front and center in a great deal of news coverage. The gains in energy efficiency, however, are truly revolutionary. The former executive director of the Sierra Club, Carl Pope, may have put it best when he said, “Efficiency is the steak; renewables are the sizzle.” The McKinsey Energy Efficiency Report estimates that $1.2 trillion dollars could be saved in the U.S. during the next 10 years through energy efficiency measures alone.

Energy efficiency involves measuring the output and quality of goods and services generated with a given set of inputs. There is a subtle difference between “conservation” and “efficiency”. These concepts are intertwined and close cousins—but distinct. Conservation is turning things off, or doing without unnecessary things or expenditures; efficiency is doing more with less. Combining the two is an order of magnitude in savings.

Approximately 30 percent of the planet’s energy is consumed in homes and commercial buildings. (International Energy Outlook, 2013) This represents 81 quadrillion British Thermal Units, (1 kilowatt = 3,412.142 BTU/hr). That’s a lot of energy. Ready for a surprise? About half of that energy is wasted! That’s right—it requires almost two BTus produced for every one BTu that is actually used. That is a lot of losses! Some of that loss is in generation and transportation of energy, but a lot of it is just wasted after it arrives in our homes and businesses.

So what to do?

Increasingly, businesses are finding that in order to stay competitive, they have to routinely assess the way they are using energy and adapt. You can hardly walk into a hotel, for example, and not find efficient light bulbs and controls throughout.

Better lights, insulation, controls, windows, high-efficiency HVAC systems, landscape design, tankless water heaters are just a few ideas that can generate impressive savings. Taken all together, these form a “game changer”, according to Segars.

“Energy efficiency is an investment that pays serious returns,” says Ben Taube of BLT Sustainability Consulting of Atlanta. “In today’s low-interest environment, an investment with a three-year payback is a simple 33 percent return on investment! It’s hard to come across those sort of returns in traditional markets.” According to Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, the comparative ROI “isn’t even close” between solar, wind, nuclear and energy efficiency.

And, of course as energy prices increase the return-on-investment gets even better.

System modifications can be deployed without even a capital commitment, says Ed Outlaw of Consensus Energy. Through a “shared savings” program, certain efficiency retrofits can be paid for by simply sharing the savings over a defined period. “We put in the system at our cost, and agree upon a method by which the savings will be calculated. The client enjoys new lights, better safety, less maintenance, and shows a commitment to the environment, all at no cost. Once the shared savings period is concluded, the client gets to keep 100 percent of the savings,” he explains.

The notion that energy efficiency and a reduction in nation’s CO2 will be too expensive for the country to absorb is a narrow perspective, according to Taube. “There is enormous growth potential in this sector. As energy prices continue to rise, newer technologies will explode into the marketplace, creating jobs and delivering better, more efficient services than we ever dreamed possible.”

Wait until you see what’s coming: individual temperature and lighting controls, triggered by a transmitter from your phone or watch, smart thermostats that determine how many people are in a room at any given time, flash cooling and heating of rooms, plasma lighting…innovation is everywhere, much of it flying under the radar. The next time you are at a stop light, look up and marvel at the Light Emitting Diodes (LED) that now exist in most major metropolitan areas, and think that just 20 years ago these lights were mostly incandescent bulbs that needed to be changed every few months and used about 80 percent more energy.

The future is bright…and cleaner…and cheaper.


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