Tackling Climate Change
More productive kilowatts
by Scott Gates
In many ways, energy efficiency doubles as an untapped source of power. For example, take a homeowner with three, 100-watt incandescent light bulbs that need replacing. By swapping them with equivalent energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs), which use one-third less electricity, that consumer retains the same amount of lighting while lowering his or her electric bill.
Applied industry-wide, energy efficiency measures like this could go a long way toward making the electricity we use do more. At a time when building new power plants is increasingly difficult due to increased construction costs and pressures to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, energy efficiency can help bridge the growing gap between the electricity being generated and what’s used.
“Energy efficiency has two primary aspects — energy consumption and power demand,” explains Tom Reddoch, manager of energy utilization at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), a non-profit, utility-sponsored consortium based in Palo Alto, Calif., whose members include electric co-ops. “If you reduce energy consumption, then you reduce your carbon footprint. If you reduce demand, then you avoid having to produce more power.”
As a whole, U.S. electricity consumption by residential, commercial, and industrial consumers is projected to climb at an average yearly rate of 1.07 percent between now and 2030, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. In other words, every year we will use 1.07 percent more electricity than the previous 12 months.
For the nation’s electric co-ops, many of which serve rapidly growing parts of the country, electricity consumption is projected to grow more than twice that rate, or by 2.4 percent annually. If that figure holds, by 2030 electric co-op power requirements will increase 73 percent, compared to a 26 percent boost for the U.S. as a whole.
In an effort to help electric cooperatives and other electric utilities trim surging power demand, EPRI launched a research project two years ago aimed at testing the latest in energy-efficiency concepts.
“We established the Living Laboratory in Knoxville, Tennessee, to create a system to evaluate technologies and make energy efficiency a sustainable activity,” says Reddoch. “More than 100 engineers and scientists at the facility test everything from cutting-edge light bulbs to consumer electronics. The laboratory provides a controlled environment to evaluate products and processes before we put them in the field for more study.”
Among the promising new gadgets EPRI is kicking the tires of are “hyper-efficient” ppliances, LED street lights, and residential ductless heat pumps, which move heated or cooled refrigerant through insulated lines to room-based fan units.
Electric cooperatives have long seen the importance of energy efficiency, and nearly all have launched initiatives over the past few decades to promote its advantages. Presently, 92 percent of co-ops offer some kind of energy-efficiency consumer-education program.
“Unlike investor-owned utilities, not-for-profit, consumer-owned electric co-ops aren’t motivated to sell more kilowatt-hours from a business standpoint,” comments John Holt, senior principal for generation and fuel with the Arlington, Va.-based National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA). “As a rule, co-ops strive to maximize use of existing resources and infrastructure. Efficiency has always been a natural part of that business model.”
In keeping with this, 77 percent of all electric co-ops offer residential energy audits, giving consumers a personalized guide to improving efficiency in their homes. Almost alf of all co-ops go an extra step, offering financial incentives that enable members to tackle those improvements, according to NRECA.
Missouri’s electric co-ops, for example, have distributed more than 1.7 million compact fluorescent light bulbs to members.
State and federal assistance is also available, although additional government help could expand on what co-ops already have in place and allow homeowners to make even more money-saving upgrades, argues NRECA CEO Glenn English.
“Many co-op consumers are feeling the pinch these days — there’s not always extra money available to go toward energy-efficiency upgrades. Electric cooperatives advocate providing $2,500 in direct federal energy-efficiency assistance to the poorest 20 percent of households, or those who earn too little to take advantage of existing tax incentives. This could enable more folks to install adequate insulation; replace or upgrade windows; and buy new Energy Star appliances, efficient lighting and HVAC systems to name a few.”
The payoff from such a policy and others like it could be substantial. Increasing energy efficiency in residential, commercial and industrial sectors could reduce the rate of growth for electricity consumption by 22 percent over the next two decades, according to EPRI. Total energy savings could mount to 236 billion kilowatt-hours by 2030. That’s a lot of power, equal to the power used in a year by 14 cities the size of New York.
Some of those potential reductions lie in what’s called “peak demand”—the electric grid’s equivalent of rush hour traffic when consumption spikes (such as hot, humid summer weekday afternoons or evenings after school and work) and power costs skyrocket. Half of all electric co-ops have the ability to curb peak demand through demand-response, also called load management, programs. These enable co-ops to directly control energy-guzzling appliances, such as electric water heaters, by remotely switching them off for short periods in the homes of volunteer members.
If co-ops continue to develop these demand response programs, they could reduce peak demand by 7,364 megawatts — roughly the capacity of a dozen or so coal-fired power plants — according to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
“Energy efficiency remains key to how electric co-ops will keep electricity affordable in the face of rising prices,” concludes English. “Co-ops are putting their expertise to work in developing programs that will help their members get the most out of every kilowatt. When consumers can reduce their electricity bills and free up kilowatts for co-ops to distribute elsewhere, that’s a win-win situation.”
Gates writes on cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. RE Magazine’s Peter Nye also contributed to this article.
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