There’s a growing groundswell of effort to take a hard look at making power generation and energy use more efficient. While renewable energies are widely touted to drive down carbon input, there’s a growing realization that an important element in the carbon equation is the amount of energy that we currently consume.
The Obama administration has outlined an energy plan that places a great deal of importance on clean energy and energy independence, but they have also identified energy efficiency as a high priority, calling efficiency our “cheapest, cleanest, fastest energy source.”
The design and development of creative systems for power generation provide an exciting new means of energy efficiency. The idea is to take the waste energy from one part of a process and convert it into energy elsewhere. A simple example of this is being implemented by the University of Notre Dame in India, where waste heat generated from computer servers is used to heat a greenhouse, saving $100,000 in cooling costs and $70,ooo in heating costs at little or no actual cost. It’s simply a means to repurpose waste energy to drive energy creation.
A larger-scale example of recycled energy is the Mittal Steel Plant, again in Indiana, that uses waste heat from their blast furnace to produce 75 MW of electricity. The heat energy from the blast furnace creates steam that is used to power a turbine, taking waste and creating better environmental efficiency. As a result of this process the plant generates 215,00 fewer tons of carbon per year.
The most interesting aspect of the idea of recycled energy is that potential energy sources surround the systems that we’ve built over the years. This idea works best in large industrial manufacturing facilities, and is even being explored for the creation of green business parks where the waste and energy from one manufacturing process can be used to power the process of compatible businesses. Everyone benefits, and the pooled energy costs savings help make the businesses sustainable.
In the United States, the government backs the Energy Star program to help individuals and businesses choose energy efficiency. One of the more interesting parts of the program is an effort to encourage appliance manufacturers to create more energy efficient products. Here, the manufacturers need to meet certain metrics to achieve compliance, and the promotion of Energy Star status gives the manufacturer a marketing incentive as individuals are most likely to choose appliances that save them money. Energy Star becomes a much-needed consumer advocate in this process, and has established itself as an authoritative arbiter of product quality.
Many electric utilities provide incentives to their residential and business customers to cut back on energy usage. One such incentive is rebates for the purchase of more efficient air conditioners, water heaters and furnaces. In many states, a business can receive rebates for installing more energy efficient lighting, drives and pumps. And in most states the utility will come to your place of business and conduct an energy audit that points out where you might save by increasing efficiency. This may seem like a counter-intuitive move, because the utility will generate fewer dollars from these efforts, but the energy utility benefits by reducing the number of new plants that it must build, which is a considerable capital cost.
One of the areas of greatest energy efficiency gains is in the application of better home insulation to save on home heating costs. The lack of proper insulation in a home is equated to throwing money out the window, and new diagnostic techniques (such as whole house blowers and thermal imaging cameras) reveal these invisible problems.
Older homes are more susceptible to insulation issues, and so too are lower-income homes. In the United States the weatherization of low-income homes is built into the stimulus package with a goal to weatherize 2 million homes at a cost of $6 Billion. In the United Kingdom, aerial thermal imaging is deployed for whole cities to graphically illustrate the homes that need attention, and to quantify the energy loss problem.
Energy efficiency may not be as compelling as creating new clean technologies, but the benefits absolutely cannot be ignored. A recent study by an economics professor quantified the benefits of energy efficiency in the state of California, based on its mandates for higher energy efficiency than other states. The results found that the state saved $56 billion in electricity costs while creating 1.5 million jobs over 35 years. Those are very compelling metrics in such uncertain times as these.