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Pamela’s Blog:
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How Efficient Are We Anyway?

June 1, 2012

Oregon just announced a ten-year goal of offsetting all increased electricity load with energy efficiency.  This echoes goals in numerous other states, which range from achieving all cost-effective energy efficiency to various targets as a percentage of electricity use.  Moreover, we regularly celebrate utilities and states for the “savings” their customers – with the utilities’ help – have achieved.  The Northwest is proud of talking about the thousands of now unbuilt electric generating capacity “saved” by energy efficiency programs over the last three decades.  Fine.  Hurray for the achievements and new goals.  But all of this begs the question: how efficient are we really?

The short, simple, and honest answer is: we have absolutely no idea.

Answers, or perhaps more precisely, indicators are not unknowable.  The approach is the same as we use for measuring the efficiency of anything: how much input does it require for how much output?  This is not a trivial exercise with respect to electricity use, but the task is not impossible.  First, we would need to identify the outputs, or more likely outcomes, that we are going to look at over time.  To be useful, these outcomes should express things that people make decisions about.  For example, at a household level, the outcomes would certainly include the temperature-related comfort of the living space; the adequacy of its lighting for the times and activities requiring lighting, the availability of hot water (how much and when), the availability of power for use by both stationary and mobile electronic devices.  Across the diverse commercial and industrial sectors, the outcomes might include some in common (space conditioning is fairly universal) and others that were sector-specific. Second, we would need to begin to measure the electricity, or more broadly energy, input required to produce a given level of outcome.  Some of the outcomes will include a qualitative aspect: how comfortable am I?   Is the lighting adequate?  The involvement of qualitative information should not stop us; we can apply the same rigor to its creation and gathering as we do quantitative information.  The key is to create and gather it over time.

Why does it matter?  Because the concept of savings, established generally by a one-time analytical study of before and after use of electricity by a given piece of equipment or in a given setting (such as a building), is static.  The world is dynamic.  Things change.  To maintain a given result, we will need to adjust what we are doing. To improve the result over time, we need to adjust more.  We need to learn from what we did before and what others are doing.  If we want to engage our competitive nature, we need a basis on which to compare our results with others.  If we want to enable people to make decisions involving not only the inputs but the desired level of output, we need to make the outcome along with at a minimum the consequences of its energy inputs visible and traceable over time.  Right now, we cannot do any of this because we insist on going about energy efficiency by looking at savings – a constructed number based on the difference between what might have existed and what we think exists now – rather than energy intensity – how much energy it used to require for a given level of outcome, how much it requires now, and how much it might be desirable for it to require in the future.

What data now exist about the performance and efficacy of energy measures are buried in what the industry benignly calls “evaluation and verification” studies, designed to show that dollars spent in utility-funded energy efficiency programs were prudent.  These studies, even if one could easily find them, are for experts only.  They contain nothing that would help a household or business improve the efficiency with which it uses energy, for whatever reasons it might desire to, over time that will undoubtedly present many different circumstances to which the household or business must adapt.

This is a blind spot among the energy policy makers, the utilities, their regulators and all of us who consider ourselves invested in energy efficiency.  I will save for another day the reasons why I think the blind spot exists.  For today, enough to note that it does exist.  And my excitement over all the lofty efficiency goals roaming around will remain tempered by the reality that we can achieve them and still not know where we are or how much farther we need to go to get to where we want to be.

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One Response

  1. Ryn Hamilton says:

    The purpose of “measurement and verification” studies is not to determine whether individual energy efficiency projects are cost effective or what they will potentially save a homeowner or business. You are thinking of benefit-cost tests (or payback analyses) that assess possible energy efficiency investments. The art of M&V has been developing over three decades – and still evolving. By and large these studies do a reasonably good job of estimating kW and kWh impacts from efficiency programs, and the studies are not buried by any means. In addition, many organizations – ACEEE is just one – have performed reputable studies that answer your questions.


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