2012 January 09 Monday
Declining ROI From Electric Power Energy Efficiency

The Edison Foundation's Institute for Electric Efficiency reports that just from 2009 to 2010 the incremental cost of saving electric power with more energy efficiency technologies went up by about 10%.

That adds up to a cost of about 3.5 cents per kWh, as cheap or cheaper than almost every source of power generation out there, including natural gas and coal. But that cost has also gone up in the past few years, according to Lisa Wood, IEE’s executive director. In 2009, energy efficiency cost 3.2 cents per kilowatt hour, according to IEE figures.

Makes sense that the low hanging fruit gets harvested first and incremental costs for additional efficiency rise. While conservation is still fairly cheap we can't count on it remaining so.

Since utilities do not try to tackle every form of energy waste there's probably more potential for increased efficiency on topics they don't try to tackle. Also, many customers don't take up utilities on deals they offer. But it seems reasonable to expect rising electricity prices in some regions to cause more people to take steps to cut their energy usage. The state governments that are requiring more renewable energy usage are pushing up electric power costs. So in those states I expect more conservation measures as a response to expensive solar and wind power driving up utility bills.

By Randall Parker    2012 January 09 12:00 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (41)
2011 December 04 Sunday
Vacuum Insulation Layers For Home Retrofits

Researchers at Fraunhofer research institutes in Germany are working on thinner insulation that uses vacuum as the insulating layer with pyrogenic silica for the structure.

In Germany, the rising cost of heating has sparked a renovation boom. In order to lower energy costs, more and more homeowners are investing in insulation facades. But the typical insulation layers on the market have one drawback: they add bulk. The 20-centimeter-thick outer skin changes the building’s visual appearance and can result in significant follow-up costs – with a need to fit new, deeper window sills and sometimes even roof extensions. Fraunhofer researchers are now developing films for a material that will insulate homes without much additional structural alteration: vacuum isolation panels, VIPs for short. The panels are only two centimeters thick and yet perform just as well as a classic 15-centimeter-thick insulation layer made from polyurethane foam. The inner workings of the VIPs are made mostly from pyrogenic silica. A high-tech film holds the material together and makes it air-tight.

Increased thickness isn't just an installation cost issue. Some structures have driveways or adjacent buildings that do not provide much room for expansion of a building's thickness.

The researchers are working on increasing panel longevity.

I'm wondering how well these VIPs would work as sound insulation. Sound does not travel thru vacuum. So for old apartment buildings with thin leaky walls could one cut down road noise and even install it in ceilings and floors to reduce noise from other apartments?

By Randall Parker    2011 December 04 09:15 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (3)
2011 July 30 Saturday
Diamond-Like Carbon For Lower Energy Plowing

Imagine farm fields plowed with synthetic diamonds.

Less friction, less power, less fuel – plowshares coated with diamond-like carbon (DLC) slide through the soil like a hot knife through butter. As a result, the tractors pulling them need less power and fuel. In some tests the power required has been reduced by more than 30 percent.

Does this sound like a good development? Not so fast. If tilling becomes cheaper we'll get more tilling and therefore more soil run-off.

Even better: eliminate tilling altogether. Not only is energy saved but the vast bulk of soil run-off is halted. One purpose for tilling is to control weeds. But other methods to do that are available. Genetically modified crops that can survive weed killers do not need tilling. An article by Francis M. Epplin, Professor of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University, highlights price changes and technological changes that have made no-till farming more cost competitive.

The second factor is a reduction in the price of glyphosate. Generic glyphosate became available in 2000 after the original patent expired. The price of glyphosate (four pounds of emulsifiable concentrate per gallon) has declined from a U.S. average of $45.50 per gallon in 1999 to less than $20 per gallon in 2007. This reduction in cost for controlling summer weeds in continuous monoculture no-till winter wheat is less than half of what it was in 1990 and substantially less when adjusted for price inflation. The development and adoption of glyphosate-resistant varieties of corn, soybeans, canola, and cotton has also advanced the adoption of no-till. The development and improvement of no-till grain drills and air seeders that increase the likelihood of good soil-to-seed contact in a variety of residue and soil conditions has also advanced the adoption of no-till. An additional factor is the price of diesel fuel increased from less than $1 per gallon in 2002 to more than $2 per gallon in 2006. This price change increases the relative cost of tillage, and tips the economic balance scales in favor of no-till.

Organic no-till with cover crops and other methods of weed control are in use as well.

One of the great hopes of agriculture is development of perennial grains which do not have to be planted each year. A National Geographic article on the potential for perennial grains describes the scale of the problem the world faces with soil erosion with plowed field farming.

No-till farming and other conservation practices have reduced the rate of soil loss in the U.S. by more than 40 percent since the 1980s, but it's still around 1.7 billion tons a year. Worldwide, one estimate put the rate of soil erosion from plowed fields at ten to a hundred times the rate of soil production. "Unless this disease is checked, the human race will wilt like any other crop," Jackson wrote 30 years ago. As growing populations force farmers in poor countries onto steeper, erodible slopes, the "disease" threatens to get worse.

So diamonds for lower energy till farming? Sounds like a good idea at first glance. But I think we need to move away from the plow rather than make it better.

By Randall Parker    2011 July 30 05:21 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (5)
2010 April 22 Thursday
Energy Efficiency Offers Profitable Returns

Bigger investments in energy efficiency in the southern US would pay back more than twice the amount invested.

DURHAM, N.C. – Energy-efficiency measures in the southern U.S. could save consumers $41 billion on their energy bills, open 380,000 new jobs, and save 8.6 billion gallons of water by 2020, according to a new study from the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University and the Georgia Institute of Technology. The study concludes that investing $200 billion in energy efficiency programs by 2030 could return $448 billion in savings.

The researchers modeled how implementation of nine policies across the residential, commercial and industrial sectors might play out over 20 years in the District of Columbia and 16 southern states.

"We looked at how these policies might interact, not just single programs," said Etan Gumerman of the Nicholas Institute and co-lead researcher of the study. "The interplay between policies compounds the savings. And it's all cost-effective. On average, each dollar invested in energy efficiency over the next 20 years will reap $2.25 in benefits."

It says something about the inefficiency of the market that the potential for such large savings exists.

The South uses a disproportionate fraction of total US energy consumption. This is curious because the South has much less need for heating. How much of this energy is going to air conditioning?

The South is rich terrain for efficiency improvements. Without them, the region might expect 15 percent growth in energy demand by 2030. Thirty-six percent of Americans live in the study region. The region consumes an outsized portion of American energy, 44 percent, but it also supplies 48 percent of the nation's power.

Greater energy efficiency will reduce the demand for coal and therefore also reduce the number of deaths and injuries due to slack attitudes toward coal mine safety where top management puts production first.

By Randall Parker    2010 April 22 11:00 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (12)
2010 April 12 Monday
The Roots of Energy Efficiency: SUVs and Refrigerators

David Goldstein of the National Resources Defense Council, gave a good talk at the UC Davis Energy Efficiency Center in April 2009 as part of a presentation The Roots of Energy Efficiency: SUVs and Refrigerators. Takes 55 minutes. He argues convincingly that energy efficiency has fast paybacks and large strides are possible to make in improving energy efficiency of appliances and homes.

Goldstein explains how California state policy created market incentives for manufacturers to gradually improve efficiency. The gradual aspect is important. Continuous improvement (as the Japanese have demonstrated) can achieve much bigger advances than attempts at occasional leaps. The tortoise beats the hare.

Check out his historical graphs of appliance energy efficiency improvements. These graphs demonstrate what is possible. My sense of it is that appliance efficiency has improved more than

He also says there's evidence that energy efficient homes default less as do location efficient homes. Though I would expect location efficient home prices will rise to the poitn where they will have equal default rates over the long run. Though rising energy prices will delay the reaching that equilibrium.

The talk is followed by a talk by David Greene of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory about SUV and car efficiency. Greene thinks fuel economy efficiency could increase by 100% by 2030 if manufacturers were required to improve. My take: Peak Oil will force much larger improvements including a very big shift to electric cars.

In the Q&A Goldstein makes the point that the limits of efficiency improvement are in part dependent on how you define the goal. For example, much greater improvements are possible if you define a goal of how to keep your food fresh rather than how do you keep your food cold. Similarly, greater lighting efficiency improvements are possible if you define the goal as providing enough light to perform tasks rather than a goal of providing some number of lumens in a room.

By Randall Parker    2010 April 12 06:42 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (2)
2009 December 10 Thursday
Efficiency Could Halt US Electric Demand Growth

The United States could avoid electric power demand growth for 20 years by implementing more technologies that boost energy efficiency.

WASHINGTON -- Energy efficiency technologies that exist today or that are likely to be developed in the near future could save considerable money as well as energy, says a new report from the National Research Council. Fully adopting these technologies could lower projected U.S. energy use 17 percent to 20 percent by 2020, and 25 percent to 31 percent by 2030.

Waste not, want not.

Buildings are where most energy usage happens, not cars, trucks, and airplanes. Update: Oops, that's electric power consumption they are referring to.

Achieving full deployment of these efficiency technologies will depend in part on pressures driving adoption, such as high energy prices or public policies designed to increase energy efficiency. Nearly 70 percent of electricity consumption in the United States occurs in buildings. The energy savings from attaining full deployment of cost-effective, energy-efficient technologies in buildings alone could eliminate the need to add new electricity generation capacity through 2030, the report says. New power generation facilities would be needed only to address imbalances in regional energy supplies, replace obsolete facilities, or to introduce more environmentally friendly sources of electricity.

Think about energy efficiency when upgrading home equipment.

Many cost-effective efficiency investments in buildings are possible, the report says. For example, replacing appliances such as air conditioners, refrigerators, freezers, furnaces, and hot water heaters with more efficient models could reduce energy use by 30 percent. Opportunities for achieving substantial energy savings exist in the industrial and transportation sectors as well. For example, deployment of industrial energy efficiency technologies could reduce energy use in manufacturing 14 percent to 22 percent by 2020, relative to expected trends. Most of these savings would occur in the most energy-intensive industries, such as chemical manufacturing, petroleum refining, pulp and paper, iron and steel, and cement.

Update: Turns out that electric power uses more energy than transportation (and very little transportation energy gets used as electric power). So cutting back electric power consumption really would have a big impact on total energy consumption. However, from the standpoint of which forms of energy we most need to shift away from more efficient usage of electric power doesn't buy us so much. Liquid fuels are the most expensive forms of energy and they are not used much to generate electric power. The biggest usage of liquid fuels is in transportation.

By Randall Parker    2009 December 10 10:59 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (21)
2008 June 22 Sunday
How Are You Adapting To High Oil Prices?

In a post on The Oil Drum entitled Have we passed "Peak Travel"? a commenter named WNC Observer made note of a development in how big recreational vehicles are getting used.

RR & Airdale: I'll tell you where all the RVs have gone - they have been parked at RV campgrounds. People pay the campgrounds a small fee to park their RVs there year round, then they drive up in a more fuel efficient car to vacation there. The RV becomes inexpensive "home base" lodging, and they can tour the area during the day in their car.

That's an interesting observation. It leads me to a question for all of you: What adaptations to high energy prices do you see happening around you? I see some people getting Vespas. Even former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld bought a Vespa LXV 150. I also see a few more people walking to work and more bicycling to work as well.

Watching autotrader.com I've seen big increases in the prices of compact cars and declines in the prices of SUVs. Obviously people are bidding up the prices of smaller and more fuel efficient cars.

So what changes do you see around you? What have you done to adapt to higher oil prices? What ideas have you seriously entertained and what do you plan to do in the future as a result of high oil and gasoline prices?

Update: About 20 hours after I wrote this post the comments I've gotten so far suggest that prices will have to go much higher to put a significant dent in gasoline consumption. I suspect my average reader is smarter and more affluent than the average American. So they are more able to pay the higher prices. But so far most people are doing little to adjust and planning little more to cut their liquid fuel consumption. Part of the decline in gasoline consumption is driven by the economic downturn decreasing income since lower income reduces gasoline consumption:

DOE economists estimate that a 1% decline in personal income results in a 0.5% drop in gasoline demand.
By Randall Parker    2008 June 22 08:33 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (24)
2008 April 26 Saturday
Gregory Clark Says Fossil Fuels Substitutes Affordable

UC Davis economics historian Gregory Clark, whose name you might recognize as author of the book A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World, argues substitutes for fossil fuels are not so expensive that shifting to them will throw us back to a more primitive era of living standards.

Many people think mistakenly that modern prosperity was founded on this fossil energy revolution, and that when the oil and coal is gone, it is back to the Stone Age. If we had no fossil energy, then we would be forced to rely on an essentially unlimited amount of solar power, available at five times current energy costs. With energy five times as expensive as at present we would take a substantial hit to incomes. Our living standard would decline by about 11 percent. But we would still be fantastically rich compared to the pre-industrial world.

That may seem like a lot of economic hurt, but put it in context. Our income would still be above the current living standards in Canada, Sweden or England. Oh, the suffering humanity! At current rates of economic growth we would gain back the income losses from having to convert to solar power in less than six years. And then onward on our march to ever greater prosperity.

Clark paints too simple a picture by simply claiming that solar power costs 4 times more than current energy costs. Comparing energy sources by dollars (or Euros, Yen, or Pounds if you prefer) per million BTU (or currency per unit of energy) provides a useful method to look across energy sources. But such a comparison draws attention to the fact that there must be important other characteristics (e.g. portability, ease of storage, ease of burning, energy density) of each energy source that cause markets to price these forms of energy so differently. For example, heating oil costs over twice as much per million BTU as natural gas. These two forms of fossil fuel have very different market valuations.

Based on prices in the cash market, gas is valued at $11.27 per million Btu compared with $14.66 per million Btu for fuel oil, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Heating oil at $23.88 per million Btu equivalent is more than double the price of gas.

Also, electricity contains about 3413 BTU per kwh. Well, 293 kwh equals 1 million BTU. Let us compare electricity to natural gas and heating oil in cost. This table of electricity costs on average per American state (one of my favorite web pages btw) shows Connecticut at 18.67 cents/kwh, Wyoming at 7.73 cents/kwh, Idaho at 6.35 cents/kwh, and Hawaii at 24.13 cents/kwh with the US average at 10.64 cents/kwh. Well, that ranges from $18.61 per million BTU in Idaho (so using straight electric heating in Idaho is cheaper than heating oil!) to $70.70 per million BTU in Hawaii (wow). People are willing to pay a big premium for energy in the form of electricity - at least for some uses.

All these numbers show that people are willing to pay higher prices for some forms of energy over other forms because of characteristics of those forms of energy. People are willing to pay more for liquid fuels rather than natural gas for transportation for example. Also, electricity costs more and people are willing to pay more for it because it can do things (e.g. power electronic devices) that oil can't directly power. Yet electricity is still quite unattractive for powering cars. If electricity was free the cost of batteries for a pure electric powered car would still put its cost of operation above a level most people would be willing to pay. For GM's forthcoming pluggable hybrid electric powered Chevy Volt the initial price will be $48000 or less if GM decides to sell it for a loss. Even switching to a new small car costs money since your used bigger car loses value more rapidly as gasoline prices rise and the new car costs money you wouldn't otherwise have spent.

The costs of substitutes will fall with time as advances in technologies enable easier substitution. Also, the costs of solar, wind, and other non-fossil fuels energy sources will drop. But we have limited ability to forecast the timing of those price drops. Right now the capital costs of equipment to allow us to use the substitutes (e.g. pluggable hybrids and electrification of railroads) are substantial and in many cases those capital costs add up to a higher price than the costs of the substitute energy sources as measured in price per million BTU. Additional costs include the premature obsolescence of existing capital plant and consumer products that rely in fossil fuels to operate.

If you want to get a sense of whether particular substitutes are already cost effective look at countries which have much higher energy costs than the United States. On that score what is notable about Europe is just how hybrids and electric cars get sold there in spite of gasoline prices about double the prices in the United States.

On the bright side, for some purposes you have plenty of cheap ways to reduce your fossil fuels usage right now. Depending on where you live and where you go you can ride a bicycle, electric bicycle, scooter, or a bus. You can replace incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents. You can choose jobs closer to home and the next time you move you can choose a residence closer to your job and closer to stores. Insulation and sealants can reduce your heating and air conditioning bills.

The most clever product I've come across lately for cutting electric power usage is the American Power Conversion (APC) Power-Saving SurgeArrest power strip which detects when your PC turns off and then takes power away from peripherals whose use is tied to use of the PC. Basically, the parasitic power usage of peripherals is avoided by doing an automated switching off the power strip when the PC goes to sleep or gets turned off.

By Randall Parker    2008 April 26 05:23 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (19)
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