Dull, old, unloved and still the best way to save energy dollars

Floor board
Eden Prairie homeowners Mike and Bernadette Farrell circulate warm water through tubes in their floors to supply some of the heat for their home
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

The problem, in part, is image.

Energy conservation or efficiency suffers from the same image problem as taking your cousin to the prom. It's an option, but a last resort.

Sheryl Carter
Sheryl Carter, senior energy policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, says the country can use conservation and efficiency techniques to cut energy use by half in the next decade.
Photo courtesy of the Natural Resources Defense Council

Sheryl Carter says it should be the first choice. Carter, senior policy analyst based in California for the Natural Resources Defense Council, NRDC, an environmental advocacy group, says California's payoff for requiring utility companies to encourage energy efficiency is immense. "California has avoided over 24 giant power plants by investments in these types of programs," she says.

The programs Carter is talking about require consumers to pay utility companies a little extra for their electricity and natural gas consumption. The money comes back to consumers through rebates when they buy more efficient appliances.

Before heading west, Carter studied at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute, and she worked in Minneapolis with Sheldon Strom. Strom is a veteran in the energy efficiency and conservation movement. He's founder and executive director of the 25-year-old Center for Energy and Environment, based in Minneapolis.

Minnesota's population of 5.1 million is a fraction of California's 40 million. However Strom says the savings over the last two decades from Minnesota's Conservation Improvement Program -- or CIP -- are no less impressive. "(We've saved)over 2,000 megawatts of power. That's the power output from two Prairie Island nuclear plants," he says.

Two power plants that didn't have to be built and nuclear waste that didn't have to be stored.

Sheldon Strom
Sheldon Strom, the executive director of the Center for Energy and Environment in Minneapolis, says conservation should be the focus of attention, before finding energy from alternative sources such as wind and solar.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

How was it done?

Fourteen years ago Minnesota lawmakers mandated that Minnesotan's pay a little extra each month for electricity and natural gas. The utility companies are required to use the money as an incentive. They offer consumers rebates for replacing their old energy-gulping refrigerator or furnace with a new energy-sipping model.

The energy saved when millions of households participate, Sheryl Carter says, means dramatic savings. "Today's refrigerators use 75 percent less electricity, they also cost a lot less than refrigerators used to cost yet they provide us with more services, and it's that model that we can follow for other things."

However many states haven't adopted the model.

Carter says this country could cut in half the amount of electricity we're expected to use over the next decade if all states had plans similar to California's and Minnesota's.

The savings could come, for example, from the new generation of TVs. The big-screen behemoths put up flashy images, but even when the screen is dark, J. Drake Hamilton says, they are not asleep. "It looks like the TV is off, but it's still using energy."

Hamilton is the science policy advisor for Fresh Energy formerly ME3, Minnesotans for an Energy Efficient Economy, a private non-profit group based in St. Paul.

Most American homes are filled with gadgets that are always partially on. They're in "standby" mode using electricity to keep themselves ready for use. Hamilton says it's a waste.

The Farrells' house
Bernadette and Mike Farrell built a 2,700-sq. ft. house, about half the size as others in their neighborhood, for maximum energy efficiency.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

"Very simple engineering solutions, if they were required, could mean that all types of those appliances would be using less, a lot less electricity in the standby mode," she says.

The cell phone charger is an example. There's a hot dispute over how much electricity they waste, but the NRDC's Sheryl Carter says their collective power consumption is high because there are millions of them plugged in and they are always on. "They amount to about 1 to 6 percent of our electricity use in the nation and they're growing in their use. We can significantly reduce the energy use by increasing the efficiency and also making sure they actually turn off," she says.

There have been big gains the past two decades in energy efficiency in this country. But the image problem persists.

Efficiency and conservation don't have the same allure as a big windmill with long graceful blades turning in the breeze, pumping out clean kilowatts of electricity.

Nor does efficiency have the attraction of a hot new rooftop solar panel technology that transforms the sun's energy for use in homes.

As Sheldon Strom puts it: the public loves gizmos. "They think renewables are more interesting and fun and everybody is more enthused about building stuff than saving stuff because that's just the way America is," he says.

Heat exchanger
The Farrells have an air-to-air heat exchanger in their basement a device that helps reduce heating costs
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

Not all Americans.

Mike and Bernadette Farrell like gadgets, but they embrace efficiency first. Their Eden Prairie home has dozens of energy-saving ideas starting at the top, Mike Farrell says, with the metal roof.

"It costs more up front, but it saves you in the long run if you're going to live in your house. But it's also a big environmental saving; there's no oil on the roof like there are in normal asphalt shingles," he says. The Farrell's biggest cold-weather natural gas monthly heating bill is $140, hundreds less than many Minnesotans. One reason for the lower bill is their house has thicker walls with much more insulation than conventional homes.

Another reason, Farrell says, is they positioned the home on the lot to make best use of the winter sun -- an idea he says all new home builders should adopt. "If we'd make that one little change which doesn't require extra money it just requires being thoughtful I bet we'd save 15 or 20 percent on heating bills in Minnesota."

The Farrells adopted one of their biggest energy saving ideas early on. They built a smaller home. It's 2,700 square feet. Many other houses in the Eden Prairie neighborhood are easily twice that size.

Experts say buildings, the places where we live and work, consume about a third of the country's energy. Savings from making buildings more energy efficient add up.

Minnetonka architect John Weidt's company, The Weidt Group, is known internationally for its energy-saving ideas. Efficient new buildings, Weidt says, use 70 percent less energy than older buildings. Older buildings can be fixed to capture a 40-percent savings.

Some building owners jump at the chance to save money by adopting energy efficient ideas. But Weidt says others are easily distracted by saving money elsewhere.

John Weidt
Minnetonka John Weidt is founder and president of The Weidt Group an internationally known business and says new efficient buildings use 70 percent less energy than older ones
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

He says the per-square-foot cost of energy is about $1.25, a fraction of what owners spend on other costs. It might cost him $5, $10, $15 per square foot for his property taxes. It's going to cost him $200 to $250 a square foot for every one of his employees. Getting him to pay attention to that $1.25 is not the easiest thing in the world to do.

There's another roadblock. Experts say many people believe most of the easy energy saving steps have been taken. But Art Rosenfeld says many of the simplest ideas are still waiting to be adopted.

Rosenfeld is a founder of this country's energy conservation and efficiency movement. The 80-year-old University of California Berkley physicist made efficiency a mission in the mid l970s when the OPEC oil embargo was taking hold.

Thirty years later, Rosenfeld is still on a mission. He says before adopting new -- and sometimes fairly expensive -- renewable energy ideas, such as solar or wind, be sure the basics have been addressed.

"When you talk about load management on a hot afternoon, most people think about photo voltaics on the roof and very few people think about the fact that the next time they're reroofing, they should just order a white roof," Rosenfeld says.

The white roof reflects more of the sun's energy and reduces cooling costs, according to Rosenfeld.

The, 'simple things first' mantra propounded by energy efficiency experts has yielded immense savings. But the message struggles to be heard in the debate about which new technology or source of fuel will power our future.

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