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A second look at energy optimization - savings without sacrifice

Charlie Hewitt's picture
Principal Sarsen Energy Group

Charlie Hewitt currently serves as the principal for Sarsen Energy Group and is the founder of ElectricityMatch. He has more than 20 years of in-depth experience in the energy industry having...

  • Member since 2014
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  • Oct 19, 2015

Discussions on distributed generation and energy storage seem to dominate the home energy forums. Declining rooftop photovoltaic prices and emerging home-scale battery technologies make for great headlines and bold predictions. Naturally, this subject brings up myriad polarizing issues including net metering, property taxes, and government subsidies. With these issues taking up so much bandwidth, basic energy conservation seems relegated to the back burner.

State regulatory commissions often task utilities with delivering the energy conservation message. In an environment where utilities are sometimes cast in an adversarial role, energy conservation suffers by association. What is being lost in the discourse is the realization that conservation remains the low-hanging fruit of the home energy market. Without meaningful conservation, the full benefit of renewable energy generation will remain unrealized. How do we breathe life into energy conservation? The answer lies in changing the message to energy optimization.

Energy optimization simply means deriving the most value from the energy consumed. Similar to avoiding empty calories in our food intake, energy optimization seeks to reduce the empty kilowatt-hours in our energy intake. Leaving interior lights on during the day when nobody is home is an example of empty kilowatt-hours. Standby losses from traditional water heaters also fall into the category of empty kilowatt-hours.

Following the concept of economic utility, the value realized per unit of energy consumed diminishes through inefficiencies and unwanted byproducts. The two primary components of energy optimization are equipment efficiency and equipment operation. Lighting is a good example of how both components can factor into energy optimization.

Relamping to energy efficient light sources reduces the amount of energy consumed per lumen. Payback periods for energy efficient lamps are improving. Compact fluorescent lamps, sometimes viewed as a transitional technology, are achieving paybacks of less than a year. From an operational perspective, home automation mobile apps promote optimization by notifying customers that lights are on and providing them the means to turn them off remotely. Through efficiency and operation, home lighting energy consumption can be optimized.

While efficiency and operation are the foundation of energy optimization, both are not always essential to achieving meaningful conservation. For example, retrofitting home heating and cooling equipment other than at the end of its serviceable life is rarely cost-justifiable. Therefore, the focus should be on optimizing the energy consumption of existing heating and cooling systems.

Energy conservation in the days of mercury switch thermostats involved bumping the setting dial until the system stopped cycling or at least cycled less often. This was pure conservation and usually resulted in sacrificing comfort. With the advent of programmable thermostats, the focus changed to identifying times when the home was unoccupied and programming different set points for those times. However, most consumers do not use this programmable functionality and operate their programmable thermostats much like a manual thermostat. This negates the energy optimization aspect of the technology.

Smart thermostat technology may hold the greatest hope for optimizing heating and cooling energy consumption. The schedules of home energy consumers are too varied and complex to manually program into a control pad. Nest uses a learning algorithm and occupancy detection to optimize heating and cooling system operation. Lyric uses an innovative geofencing approach to detect the comings and goings of occupants. These technologies significantly advance the concept of conservation without sacrifice.

The goal of energy optimization messaging is to promote technologies and behaviors that have reasonable payback periods and do not require unreasonable levels of consumer interaction. The bad news is that some utilities still promote programmable thermostats or recommend stale strategies that sacrifice comfort. The good news is we are starting to see smart thermostats incorporated into retail electric plans and consumers are responding positively to the energy optimization message.

Retail energy customers are not averse to conserving energy if it does not involve significant sacrifices, excessive management, or unreasonable capital outlays. In a way, energy conservation is analogous to dieting. It has connotations of sacrificing, doing without, and depriving yourself of comforts. For this reason, it is a difficult getting the majority of energy consumers to embrace conservation as a sustainable activity. However, to the extent that the health industry has pivoted its message from dieting to healthy eating, the home energy industry should pivot its messaging from conservation to optimization.

Republished from EnergyPulse, 5/15/15

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