Today I’ve been blogging for Greenbiz.com from the 20th annual Energy Efficiency Forum in Washington, D.C., a day-long event sponsored by Johnson Controls and the United States Energy Association. Here are some highlights:
Google: making consumers smarter about energy
Imagine if you walked into a grocery store, chose the food you want (no price tags), took it home and then, at the end of the month, got the bill in the mail. “That’s essentially what we are doing with electricity and natural gas right now,” says Dan Reicher, who heads energy and climate policy at Google, which is aiming to change that.
Instead giving energy consumers a monthly bill that arrives after the fact and is hard for even a geek to decipher, Google wants to give them a way to track their electricity use in real time, or close to, through a free, open-protocol piece of software called Google’s Power Meter. The Power Meter being rolled out in cooperation with eight utility companies, six in the U.S., one in Canada and one in India; they feed the software data through smart meters or other devices.
“Just the simple act of getting people information can really change the way they use energy,” Reicher says. The software tracks electricity use for now, but there’s no reason it can’t be adapted to meter natural gas or water in the future. The software can be installed on a Google home page (alongside stock prices or sports scores) or on a mobile device. “You get data, numbers, graphics, all kinds of interesting things,” Reicher said.
Making consumers smarter about energy will change habits, especially when combined with time-of-day pricing. If utilities can induce people to use less electricity during summer days when it is expensive and more during off peak hours, they won’t have to build as many new power plants to meet peak loads and everyone will save money.
Google employees have been testing the Power Meter for some time, with amusing results. One tenant in a San Francisco apartment saw unusual spikes in his usage and learned that he was paying for the washer and dryer for his entire building. Another found that her her swimming pool pump never turned off. A third replaced old refrigerators in the kitchen and garage and cut his utility bill by 45%.
The scope of Google’s work around energy and climate is quite remarkable. (Reicher, who’s been to FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green, is a typically smart Google exec, a former energy investor and a policymaker during the Clinton administration.) Google is investing in geothermal energy, doing its own research on solar thermal power, pushing hard for plug-in hybrids and “greening” its data centers. I’m hoping to dig deeper into Google’s energy initiatives in a future post.
No shortage of brainpower at DOE
Energy Secretary Steven Chu has gotten a lot of attention as s the first cabinet member with a Nobel Prize–Henry Kissinger’s doesn’t count, because he got it after leaving the government–but his deputy at DOE, Kristina Johnson, is no slouch in the smarts department, to put it mildly.
Johnson is an electrical engineer with a Stanford PhD, a winner of the John Fritz Medal (said to be the highest award in the engineering profession), the former dean of engineering at Duke, the holder of 129 US and foreign patents or patents pending, author or co-author of more than 142 peer-reviewed publications and a co-founder of several startups in the field of photonics and microdisplays. She made her first public appearance at the Energy Efficiency Forum, focusing on the “how” of bring change to the energy economy more than the “what.”
Johnson laid out three principles that will guide her work as undersecretary at DOE. “First, we have to have the best science and engineering inform our policy,” she said. Second, she said, DOE needs to “take a systems perspective” rather than looking a policy from a narrow view. Third, solving the problems will require “an open, collaborative workforce” and breaking down silos both inside the government and among government, business and academia.
Getting a bit more specific, Johnson says DOE believes that the energy use of buildings can be reduced by 60 to 70% over time and that the balance of the electricity needed can be generated by renewable sources. Lighting, which accounts for about 18% of the energy use in buildings, is an easy target. “It’s estimated that about 70% of our (energy use) for lighting is wasted,” she said. CFL and LED fixtures offer dramatic improvements over conventional fluorescent lighting.
She was also bullish about ground-source heat pumps as an energy source. This month, Chu announced that nearly $50 million in stimulus funds will be made available to advance the commercial deployment of geothermal heat pumps. “They use the stable temperature of the earth to heat homes in the winter and cool homes in the summer more efficiently,” Johnson said. “This is a very exciting opportunity for us.”
Dallas, of all places, is going green, its mayor says
To a lot of people, including yours truly, Dallas still brings to mind images of J.R. Ewing and oilmen in cowboy hats. Forget that—the current mayor of Dallas, Tom Leppert, is an environmentalist and a very savvy businessman.
He’s the former CEO of Turner Construction, one of the largest construction management companies in the United States (with a construction volume of $10.6 billion in 2008). He’s a Harvard MBA. And since being elected mayor of Dallas in 2007, Leppert, a 55-year-old Republican, is widely seen as headed for bigger things in politics.
The energy-efficiency issue has never gotten anyone elected to anything, but Leppert pushed it with the Dallas City Council. The city passed a strong new building code last year that gradually requires commercial and residential buildings to meet energy-saving and water-saving standards.
By 2011, Leppert told the forum: “All buildings will have to meet LEED or similar certification standards, if they are going to be in the city of Dallas…We’re doing it to position our city as a leader in this industry.” He said the city wants to go further, changing living and working patterns to encourage more density around rail stations and mass transit.
Greener cities will attract more business development, as well as more people, he argued. Looking out at the crowd where everyone was toting a laptop and cell phone, he said: “You get to make the decision where you live. And more of those decisions are going to be based on what environment you want to live in.”
An impressive guy, worth watching.
The paradox of energy efficiency
Some provocative talk came from Roger Cooper, the executive vice president of the American Gas Association, about Jevons paradox,
an economic theory you don’t normally hear about an energy and environment meetings. Writing about coal in the 1860s, William Stanley Jevons observed that England’s coal consumption soared after James Watt introduced his coal-fired steam engine which was more efficient that its predecessor. (But you knew that, right?) Jevons paradox which is sometimes called the “rebound effect” has been used to oppose energy conservation or government-mandated efficiency standards.
Cooper did not go that far, but he did say that policy makers should be aware that efficiency can be a double-edged sword. If energy prices stay constant, he said: “You increase energy efficiency, you make the resource cheaper and you lead to an increase in energy consumption.”
U.S. cars, for example, have become far more efficient since the 1970s but we burn more gasoline today in part because people drive twice as far. When we buy an energy-efficient air conditioner, we are prone to run it more. Or, think about what’s happened in communications, as bandwidth has gotten much cheaper–we make a lot more long-distance phone calls and think nothing of talking on a cell phone.
This would suggest that pricing, more than mandates, is the way to drive down energy consumption.