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The three levels of energy efficiency

Greg Studen  |  04/20/09 @ 7:03pm

We are in the midst of an avalanche of information about the dramatic warming of the Earth's climate.  From melting glaciers and Arctic sea ice, to disappearing permafrost, drought and storms, to alarming news of significant warming of the oceans, there is no longer any doubt that the challenge of combating climate change is upon us. A new sense of urgency has arrived, in government, in business, education, and in the daily lives of average citizens. A major effort is now underway to develop and deploy the new energy sources that will replace fossil fuels and gradually reduce carbon dioxide emissions. We are on the forefront of evolving into what looks like will be a solar-electric energy economy, where the major sources of energy will be solar photovoltaics, solar thermal heating and cooling, and wind turbines.  Other sources, such as geothermal, tidal, and hydroelectric energy, will play a lesser but important role.While the push goes on to develop new energy sources, there is available to us right now a huge new energy source that will take relatively little new research and development to tap into, and is accessible by every citizen. This source is ourselves, and is tapped by the more efficient use of energy for our daily needs. Studies have shown that there are huge opportunities for reducing our energy needs, and hence the burning of fossil fuels and emission of carbon dioxide, by increasing the efficiency of current technologies. In most cases, this requires no new breakthroughs, but rather the application of existing technologies that are simply under utilized. Of course, new ideas are welcome and will definitely help to cut energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. But it's a myth to think that we have to wait for new technologies to make substantial gains in efficiency.

The most basic approach to increasing our energy efficiency can be called "machine" or "tool"  efficiency. The concept of a tool or machine is used in a very broad sense, to include all the phyical objects that we use to go about our daily lives. Tools include our cars, lights, houses, appliances, and computers for personal use, as well as all the industrial equipment and buildings that are used to make these things.  Many ways are available to increase the energy efficiency of the whole range of tools that we use as consumers. For example, purchase a better-mileage car, install compact fluorescent light bulbs, insulate the house, buy more efficient appliances-the list is endless. The nice thing about tool efficiency is that a huge number of options for improvement are available right now, without waiting for new technologies. You don't have to to throw out your present tools, but rather to look for the most efficient models when you need to buy new. Some improvements can be made as upgrades, such as better insulation or windows on your house. You have to spend money to get more efficient tools, but the payback is good and will be better as energy prices increase. Plus, the cumulative effect of a lot of little improvements in our mass consumption society will make a huge difference. A second major approach to increased efficiency is called "end-use" efficiency. Here the idea is that you find a way to achieve your goal or end use in a more efficient way, not by upgrading your present tools, but by changing the way you go about things. A clear example here is using a different, more efficient tool for a given task; say you ride your bike or walk to the library or store, instead of taking the car. For car trips, you may save up a number of errands and then make one loop to do your business, instead of several, separate trips. If you are moving, you might choose a smaller house, or one that is closer to where you work. Or you might shop for local produce at a farmers' market. In your home, you might turn the thermostat down at night and put an extra blanket on the bed. Your goal is to stay warm, and how you do it makes a difference. The possibilities are endless, once you get into the proper mindset. The key is to become more aware of the energy impact of your daily choices, and to inform yourself about alternatives that are readily available. One nice thing about end use efficiency is that it can be very inexpensive, and in many cases free. You don't necessarily have to buy anything; just make the commitment to become aware of your energy impact and to make better decisions about how you use the tools your own. It might take some effort, but, after all, the exercise is an extra benefit if you walk or bike, and you might wind up eating healthier food.There is a third level of efficiency which is potentially even more significant than the two kinds described above. What could be called "happiness" efficiency involves an investigation of what it is that you seek to make yourself happy-what are your goals? It takes end-use efficiency one step further, by challenging you to look at your current perception of your desires and needs and to ask if you could be just as happy with goals that require lower energy use. What do you really need to be happy?  The crux of the matter is to take a hard look at the material goods that you own, or would like to have, and the activities that give you pleasure. What are the things that you have, and do, that require a lot of energy, and hence fossil fuel use? Could you be happy with less?  This exercise in efficiency analysis is likely to be a lot less academic in the near future than it seems now. As the crushing weight of climate change and resource depletion brings serious threats to our way of life, we will have to cut our fossil fuel use dramatically, and rapidly. Getting our carbon dioxide emissions down by 90% from present levels in the next forty years to meet climate change goals is no small matter. Alternative energy technologies will help, but it will also take a major effort by all of us to assess the efficiency with which we reach our goals-and to re-evaluate what is really important in life. A change away from our American mass-consumption and throwaway society is a step in that direction, but that can only occur if individuals begin to question the consumer culture. Can we be happy with doing, and being, more than with having?There is no need to get depressed about the need for change, or thinking that we might as well throw in the towel. Small steps are all that is needed to start. There's a lot we can do, and a lot of help in figuring out how to be more efficient. For some ideas, check out the New American Dream website here, the Stanford University Sustainable Choices website here, or the GCBL link to conservation and efficiency under "Energy" in the Practice Areas space in the upper left corner of this page. Don't count on major breakthroughs, either in technology or in your own lifestyle. Just become aware of the energy impacts of your choices and do a little bit every day; the cumulative effect if we all pull together will be tremendous. In the end, it will not be "them"-the scientists or the government-who save us from the negative impacts of global warming and resource depletion. It will be us.It's all about living as if what you do matters. And it does.

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