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More Energy or Smarter Use?
Jamais Cascio, 10 Oct 05

The UK Design Council's RED group has been working on a variety of projects linking design and energy/climate issues, and the corresponding RED blog is paying attention to new developments in the field. Today, RED linked to an article in the UK's Guardian containing a particularly pithy observation: a call for more power generation -- whether desired by politicians or energy industry executives -- is the answer to the wrong problem.

One of the great failures of Britain's electricity market is that the companies which supply households with electricity compete to sell electricity at the lowest price, rather than competing to power, heat and light our homes at the lowest price. It's as if restaurants competed to stuff customers with the cheapest possible food without either party noticing or caring that, each time, two-thirds of the meal was left on the plate.

"Somehow or other, we've got to find a commercial answer that makes us money and makes our customers' lives better by them consuming less energy," says [Simon] Skillings [director of strategy at the UK's second largest electricity generator].

This is precisely why we keep pounding on the idea of efficiency. It is possible in nearly every system we touch that uses energy to reduce the system's level of power use while improving the system's utility. Sometimes this means improving the efficiency of a common type of technology -- improving wall insulation, for example. Sometimes, however, it means improving "service efficiency" by looking not at the technology, but at what we're trying to do with that technology.


There's a saying that runs something like "people aren't interested in lightbulbs, they're interested in light" -- that is, improvements to a given specific technology must always be in the service of the larger purpose of the technology. Too narrow a focus on improving a given technology (e.g., internal combustion engine cars) can blind one to the rewards of meeting the same needs with entirely different systems (e.g., smart planning and personal mass transit). Alex is fond of remarking that "the solution to the problem of cars won't be found under the hood," and to the extent this means that meeting transportation needs efficiently and sustainably is likely to mean something more than plug-in hybrids and fuel cells, he's right.

It's important to note that this kind of solution requires more than a simple replacement of systems. Too narrow of a focus on one particular outcome from a given technology can miss the other reasons it gets used; replacements that improve upon just one part without taking the others into account are likely to struggle for acceptance. Smart planning and good mass transit can replace or improve upon the basic functionality of a car, but unless done well, can be worse in terms of flexibility and convenience. Service efficiency projects, when done right, function as 'economies of scope,' working to solve multiple problems across a diverse set of issues.

As mentioned, RED has been working on a variety of energy design projects, and they recently posted a set of "Energy Briefs" giving quick overviews of ideas that they've deemed the most promising. Some have a distinctly worldchanging flavor to them, particularly those which focus on "making the invisible visible," but all showcase good ideas. The briefs are, well, brief, and don't go into much detail about what RED plans -- but it's good to see that these kinds of ideas are moving into the mainstream.

Energy Brief A: Home Dashboard System

Energy Brief B: Ambient Heartbeat Display

Energy Brief C: Green Modular Roof

Energy Brief D: Decorative Wall Insulation

Energy Brief E: Draught Exclusion

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Comments

These look like good ideas; however, I'm not sure the Guardian criticism applies in practice. Many electric companies subsidize purchases of compact fluorescent bulbs, for instance, because they're a cheaper way of meeting power needs than building new power plants, per annual kWh. Can those sort of natural incentives be extended to companies responsible for heating and transportation infrastructure?


Posted by: Arthur Smith on 10 Oct 05

The fact is power companies want you to conserve because the less you use the more they can charge per unit of use;/

But we will be using alot more power soon. We wont have a choice.


Posted by: wintermane on 10 Oct 05

Sure, efficiency is important. We need to address the demand side of the equation.

But one of the best ways to do that is put energy produciton in the hands of the consumer- distributed, micropower will force consumers to look at efficiency.


Posted by: scottb on 11 Oct 05

I don't remember where I saw this stat, but I remember reading once that energy efficiency expenditures are 2 times more cost effective than energy development. That is, if I spend X to generate 1000KWhr, I could have spent 1/2X to reduce my usage by the same amount.

And I'm just noticing that I'm the only one at the office and all of the lights are on. Sheesh.


Posted by: Erik Ehlert on 11 Oct 05

That WAS the scale back at the start but the problem is as you increase eff the costs climb.. Its a dimishing returns game.

Also the very basic fact is we have more people and more things that need energy. You have to increase supply you dont have a choice no matter what anyone says. Poeple dont want to live in a hoime with 3 foot walls. They dont want to drive tiny cars or cram in with a bunch of other people in a train car or onto a bus.

What they want drives what we build and we are building more power plants.


Posted by: wintermane on 12 Oct 05

Well, here's a simple test:

Assume you have $10,000 (U.S.). Pretend it's a grant, and there are a few conditions. You can spend that $10K on:

• Improvements to your energy efficiency: insulation, air-sealing, tune up for the car, compact fluorescent lights, a better refrigerator, LCD monitor to replace the old CRT, radiant barrier in the attic, etc.

• Renewable energy systems: photovoltaics, a small wind turbine, solar hot water, a Stirling Engine kit, etc.

• Any consumer good you want: a new all-terrain vehicle, 54-inch plasma TV, walk-in humidor, whatever - except you need to write a little essay demonstrating how you'll be financially, physically an psychologically better off.

So what would you do with that money?


Posted by: David Foley on 13 Oct 05

Doh I replied to that in the wrong topic;/

If I had 10000 extra id buy myself a nifty puter and lcd monitor acting like it was for eff reasons of course;/

Then bank the rest for 10 years until the tech has gotten just the way I want it and only THEN decide what to buy energy wise.


Buying into alot of solar right now is the same as having bought betamax. Only do so if you can spare the money and plan to have plenty more in 5-10 years when the real deal shows up/


Posted by: wintermane on 13 Oct 05



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