THE FUTURE OF ELECTRICITY
The dawning of the age of energy efficiency
Technology, consumer awareness, and public policy are setting the stage for a new era in how we use electricity
Will the next few years stand out as the time when consumers finally get serious about using less electricity? When households and businesses and big industries all make great progress toward conserving energy?
The answer is a resounding “yes” according to an opinion survey conducted by The Brattle Group, an international consulting firm based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Their survey predicts that the United States is on the brink of a new wave of energy-efficiency improvements that will have a significant effect on the demand for electricity.
The Brattle Group’s report says, “Overall, the experts expect that U.S. electric consumption will decline between 5 and 15 percent by the year 2020” compared to what it would be without additional energy-efficiency efforts.
But can this hopeful outlook be backed up with facts? What will inspire people to use less electricity?
Efficiency is in
John Hewa, vice president of Research, Engineering, and Technical Services at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, says, “We’re already seeing that the American public is interested in getting the highest value that can be derived from goods and services. They want simple, cost-effective solutions to lower their energy costs. Energy efficiency already is the ‘in’ and popular thing to do.”
But Hewa continues, “The degree to which an individual household can focus on energy consumption varies a lot.”
There’s often a big difference between what people want to do to use less energy and save money over the long term, and what they can afford to do right away in the short term.
“That’s why NRECA is deeply involved in providing information and educational forums across the country about energy efficiency and energy conservation,” Hewa says.
Much of NRECA’s information comes from tests performed by Cooperative Research Network (CRN, the research arm of NRECA), a science- and engineering-based group that studies how new devices work in both laboratory situations and the real world.
Hewa says, “CRN has produced a number of guides for electric co-ops, including energy information presentations, a complete guide to energy efficiency, and explanations of how various programs work.”
These easy-to-understand materials give consumers the facts they need to see what actions they can take to help them use less energy in their particular situations.
Three years ago, a very different study of energy efficiency, based on serious number-crunching by engineers and other energy experts, looked at the effect new technology could have on the total amount of electricity used in the United States.
The Electric Power Research Institute report says that during the next two decades, total electricity consumption could be lowered between 8 and 11 percent—but not until the year 2030.
The members of EPRI, an independent nonprofit organization of scientists, engineers, and academic and industry experts, reached their conclusion by examining what could happen in a very specific set of circumstances.
Energy saving speeds up
In their study, as each piece of existing equipment, such as an air conditioner or a refrigerator or a light bulb, reaches the end of its useful life, it is replaced by the most efficient new device available. That means new consumer equipment is not suddenly substituted for old items, but occurs over time in the more real-world timetable of gradual replacements, a process known as “phase-in.” The EPRI study also looked at available energy-efficiency options for electric utilities, such as adding more smart meters and improving other kinds of power grid devices.
A key difference about the older EPRI study is what it did not do. The EPRI study did not guess at the impact of policy changes that might or might not happen in the future. The EPRI study did not consider the effect of laws that could require more energy-efficient items ahead of normal replacement times, nor did it look at how consumer behavior might be influenced by special financial programs. The EPRI study simply focused on what would be possible to achieve using better technology.
But in the three years between the EPRI study and The Brattle Group survey, a lot has changed. At the local, state, and national level, policymakers have begun to pass new laws aimed at achieving dramatic energy reductions at a faster pace than the simple phase-in of better equipment as old items wear out.
As the population of the United States increases, and economic activity expands, the demand for electricity would typically increase. But when all the energy-efficiency steps taken by individual consumers are added together, the combined reduction could play a big role in lowering power plant emissions and other environmental impacts of generating electricity.
WHAT'S BEHIND THE NEW
WAVE OF EFFICIENCY
In the coming months and years, consumers can expect to see a new wave of programs aimed at boosting energy efficiency. These will include:
1. information campaigns providing facts and figures and how-to advice
2. stricter codes and standards for buildings, appliances, lighting, and equipment
3. technology and gadgets to monitor electricity use
4. rebates, low-interest financing, and other financial incentives
5. variable electricity rates during specific time periods
SAVING ENERGY AND MONEY WITH CO-OPS
Kentucky’s electric co-ops offer expert energy-saving tips. And Kentucky Living has published a comprehensive energy-efficiency guide annually for the past three years.
To find the energy guides and lots of other ideas to save money and energy, contact your local electric co-op or go to the Web site of the Kentucky Association of Electric Cooperatives at www.kaec.org and click on the “Smart Energy Use” icon.