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What Questions Do You Have about Energy Efficiency?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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On Tuesday, September 20, I’m set to moderate a panel on energy efficiency, specifically as it applies in New York City. As part of Climate Week NYC, the panelists will explore what the local utility Consolidated Edisonand some of its partners—are doing to manage electricity use in the city that never sleeps (which means we use a lot of power when you add it all up, explicitly 2,500 megawatts per square mile in Manhattan).

In New York, it’s all about the buildings. New regulations will soon force building owners to stop burning the dirtiest fuel oil in heating system boilers. And, as James Gallagher of the New York Independent System Operator, pointed out a year or so ago, “400 buildings are responsible for 20 percent of Con Ed’s peak load.” That’s some pretty low-hanging (and easily identified) fruit, though challenges remain, like the fact that owners, who would have to pay a bundle for such efficiency improvements, typically don’t live in the building (or pay its electric bills) and therefore don’t reap any financial reward. Then there’s the fact that New York already has (or is soon to get) many of the “smart grid” improvements that are merely under discussion for the rest of the country.

Ultimately, there’s a perpetual question that faces any energy efficiency effort anywhere: if it saves money, why isn’t more already happening?

I know what questions I’ll be asking, but I’m also curious what *you* want to know about energy efficiency efforts? What questions do you have for your local utility, or for Con Ed, ThinkEco and Viridity?

The event will be held at the New York Academy of Sciences, 7 World Trade Center. Join us if you can. In any case, please contribute a question in the comments below or email them to

Image: © / rabbit75_ist


David Biello About the Author: David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @dbiello.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. phil rimmer 7:42 pm 09/19/2011

    Technology doesn’t always deliver what the marketing people want. Being lazy, they merely want the same thing, compliant with the latest standards, just cheaper. New technology may or may not deliver cheaper, but it may deliver extra reliability and longevity, extra efficiency,and extra versatility/controlability. The only way to commercialize all that technology can offer is to bundle hardware, installation, energy purchase, control and maintenance into a one-signature service provision for say lighting, HVAC etc. Ex works LEDs are now cheaper than ex works incandescent lamps in lumen hours per dollar terms. They have one seventh of the running cost and 50k hour maintenance cycles. They are too expensive despite being cheaper “because” they last too long.What are the barriers to sensible service business models? Why is it going so slowly?

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  2. 2. ifrommer 9:27 pm 09/19/2011

    What do the panelists think about Jevons paradox? That is, the idea that energy efficiency can lead initially to savings on energy costs but then to a rebound of increased consumption of energy (since it’s now cheaper), offsetting the original gains. See for more info.

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  3. 3. SciGuy31 10:07 pm 09/19/2011

    Why do utilities use “nameplate capacity” instead of the actual efficiency for power plants? Power output for wind and solar is nowhere near the nameplate capacity. The sun will never shine and the winds will never blow 24 hours a day. Wind and solar predictably produce only 30% and 20% of their rated capacity, respectively, compared to geothermal, hydro and nuclear at around 90-100%.

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  4. 4. robbie's world 11:30 pm 09/19/2011

    Why is there no immediately available, long term sustainable pricing when it comes to energy usage? This may seem like a stupid question for a scientific magazine, but how long will it be before the cost of energy is an average monthly payment like say a Cricket mobile phone bill? One price for consumption within a certain square footage per month? Maybe using age of building, and information about the materials the building is made of could also be considered along with other variables such as number of people occupying building, etc. But by now I think that the energy companies should have this basic information on hand. It would definitely make life easier for the consumers to know exactly what their monthly bill is going to be. It would probably give shareholders a more stable return on investment.

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  5. 5. blindboy 4:30 am 09/20/2011

    Why are we constantly urged to make minor savings such as turning things off at the power point when I can look out my window and see commercial buildings burning hundreds of kilowatt-hours lighting their buildings for no valid reason?

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  6. 6. Whail1 10:33 am 09/20/2011

    Here is an article from 2007 in which the subject, Amory Lovins, states that there is a surprisingly large power drain due to the wiring used in buildings. He states that the gauge of wire used was calculated on safety rather than efficiency. I don’t hear much about this.

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  7. 7. dbiello 10:44 am 09/20/2011

    Great questions everybody. Keep ‘em coming!

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  8. 8. chrispoirier 10:49 am 09/20/2011

    There has been a lot of buzz around personal energy storage devices recently; battery packs that store energy created by persons walking, running, bicycling, etc. Obviously personal energy storage devices are not a panacea that will create enough energy to power a city such as New York, but New Yorkers do walk a lot. More than most Americans. It seems that harnessing the energy we create throughout the day would be a smart way to increase energy efficiency. If you’re walking around anyway, you may as well use that energy you create to charge your phone, iPod and laptop.

    Chris Poirier
    Vice-President, Maine Energy Pros, Inc.

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  9. 9. OgreMk5 4:16 pm 09/20/2011

    If efficiency is the killer, then why are we still using IC engines that are less than 20%?

    Especially in New York, where trips are very short and the consequences of pollution are magnified by the buildings. Why don’t taxis swap to battery power? It would reduce noise, pollution, and the single largest use of fossil fuels (IC engines). Battery swapping would make fleets of electric cars quite effective. Plus, fleets of battery powered vehicles would be a reserve source of power for short term emergencies.

    Besides, even large scale powerplants are more efficient than IC engines (if we’re just talking about efficiency).

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  10. 10. hecolmen 1:47 am 09/21/2011

    Talking about solar efficiency, Im asking about solar desalination efficincy, because this article point that salor desalination require hight energy comsumption

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  11. 11. hecolmen 1:49 am 09/21/2011

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  12. 12. dbiello 10:23 am 09/21/2011

    Phil – That is *exactly* the business model for commercial users, the problems seems to be scaling it down to the residential level. Frankly, it seems to be a hurdle of the expense of educating us consumers doesn’t deliver as much payback as, say, cycling down Goldman Sachs AC at its office complex.

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  13. 13. dbiello 10:25 am 09/21/2011

    ifrommer – Jevons paradox is a thorny issue and we didn’t really get a chance to get into it, sadly (one always runs out of time at these things!) What I can say is that such rebound is real but places like California have overcome it, largely through things like mandates and appliance standards. That said, there is now the problem of keeping two fridges instead of just one…

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  14. 14. dbiello 10:26 am 09/21/2011

    SciGuy31: We focused largely on the conservation / efficiency demand side, not the generation side. After all, Con Ed (our utility representative on the panel) doesn’t own any generation anymore. A question for another time!

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  15. 15. dbiello 10:28 am 09/21/2011

    Robbiesworld – There are level payment plans for electricity currently. But the smart grid, in some iterations, is an effort to get away from that entirely, i.e. varying price in a much more timely fashion to give people an incentive to run their dishwashers at night (and when full) rather than in the middle of the afternoon or whatever.

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  16. 16. dbiello 10:31 am 09/21/2011

    blindboy: No question that the biggest bang for the buck is in curbing the energy use of large commercial buildings (like all these skyscrapers lighting the night sky in the pic above). And that’s exactly what Viridity aims to do:

    The good news is that when such large commercial buildings decrease demand, that lowers the price of electricity for everybody else, i.e. you and me.

    At the same time, the “personal virtue” of conservation can really add up. For example, simply shutting off devices that are “always on” (like DVRs, plasma TVs, etc.) can deliver savings of 6-10% on an average electricity bill. That adds up over time, both for the grid and your wallet.

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  17. 17. dbiello 10:34 am 09/21/2011

    OgreMk5: no question that hybrids or anything with regenerative braking makes a ton of sense in the stop-and-go traffic of NYC. There are a host of legal reasons why the taxi fleet as a whole can’t make that switch, sadly. But there are more and more, particularly as taxi fleet owners (and drivers) see the savings from the Ford Explorer hybrid taxis you see now compared to the old Crown Victorias…

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  18. 18. dbiello 10:34 am 09/21/2011

    Thanks everybody!

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  19. 19. dgaudio 6:12 pm 06/28/2012

    The problem with trying to get people to switch to “greener” means is that of distance. The average American feels so far away from their source of power- from the consequences of their actions. Sure propaganda pictures and videos get the message out there, but they are seen as popaganda. They see fanatical hippies organizations spreading these exaggerated pictures between games of hackie-sack.

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