Five Percent: Conserve Energy

Climate Change Is Important: Energy Conservation is the First Step

October 7, 2010

How Heat Works (Warning: Scientific Content)

Category: 5%'s Top 10 List,Fun,Household,Technology – Tom Harrison – 1:01 pm

Heat, Thermostats and Serious Content (photo: Dan Zeng)

A few weeks ago I posted on the MS Hohm blog about programmable thermostats — Energy Star no longer recommends them, but not because they don’t work, but instead because people don’t use them correctly.

Studies show that people can be lazy, intimidated, etc.  But I want to discuss a significant reason pointed out in the study: people have an incorrect “mental model” of how programmable thermostats work (PDF).

A mental model is just how you picture something working — how you understand stuff in order to get through a complicated world, right or wrong.  A classic mismatch of mental model and reality is that “the computer” is the the screen, rather than the part that has the CPU, Memory and Disk in it (leave it to Apple to make a computer that matches peoples’ mental models!)

Apparently a certain Alaskan Senator had the mental model of the Internet as a “series of tubes.” But I won’t go there.

My hope is that where it matters, we can get a proper mental model that helps us make good decisions.  Here are some that caused people to not use programmable thermostats. (more…)

September 27, 2010

Mac Sleep Problems Resolved (and Explained)

Mac Won't SleepSay it isn’t so — my Macbook will not sleep! When I abandoned Windows for a Macbook, I hoped I would resolve a problem with not sleeping (entering sleep mode) that I have posted about before — my Windows XP Sleep and Hibernation posts continue to generate thousands of views, but alas, Snow Leopard, OS X doesn’t always sleep, either.

I have done a fair amount of research and think I understand why my macbook will not enter sleep mode, and how the OS X sleep process works. And importantly (and unlike Windows): what you can do to resolve the issue. The short answer is: there’s no built-in way to ensure your Mac goes to sleep automatically, but there’s a great bit of free software you can install, which in my tests works perfectly: PleaseSleep. (more…)

September 10, 2010

Review: Merchants of Doubt

Category: Climate Change,Companies,Technology – Tom Harrison – 11:39 am

I sometimes fail to understand the breadth, depth and complexity of human behavior. After reading Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming I have been reminded how perfectly rational it can be for a person to promote a position they know to be wrong, for some greater objective.

The book is written by two science historians and is very readable. They make some rather startling and direct assertions, extensively backed up with footnotes (a significant part of the book is the footnotes themselves). Their research took five years and is careful, fact-checked, and cohesive. Their conclusions are, in short, that for whatever reasons, a very small number of scientists … real scientists … found purpose and financial support in undermining the findings of real science. (more…)

August 14, 2010

Electricity Demand-side Management: A Better Use for Monitoring

Category: Economics,Save Electricity,Technology – Tom Harrison – 4:33 pm

Demand for electricity is highest on hot days in the summer, mainly because people, and businesses turn on their air conditioners. Increased demand is pretty easy to predict using a weather forecast.

When you turn on your AC, some generator, somewhere has to work a tiny bit harder — it happens almost instantly and automatically. All of this is entirely invisible to you.

But, in the aggregate, when lots of people turn on their AC and this happens at scale, three things can occur:

  • The generator (power plant) revs a little higher and produces more power, unless it’s at it’s capacity, then
  • The power plant operator ramps up one of the “operating reserve” plants, unless they have already put all the spares online, in which case
  • There’s a brown-out, or black-out

But actually there’s another option: consumers of power could just use less. But how do we know to use less — it’s invisible.

And, would we do anything is we know we were getting to the edge of capacity? What’s interesting is that some customers agree to unplug voluntarily. This link is to a story in the New York Times. It doesn’t surprise me that (some) people are willing to adjust their behavior without monetary incentives. What I found remarkable is how primitive the system for communicating the need is:

On the afternoon before an anticipated surge in demand, e-mails, faxes and phone calls go out alerting those who had already agreed that it is time for them to unplug.

So what if there were a way to automatically inform people of peak events? What if people that turned off appliances did get some economic benefit? (more…)

April 27, 2010

Oil Spill: A Great News Day for British Petroleum

Category: Companies,News,Technology – Tom Harrison – 7:41 pm

oil rig explosion

Not As Important as...

I was surprised to hear (for the first time today) that there was an oil drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico that, um, exploded last week (a couple days before Earth Day), and is currently pumping 42,000 barrels of oil a day into the water, and attempts to shut down the leak (1 mile down) have failed repeatedly since the leak was discovered on Saturday — I happened to be in my car and heard a report on NPR.

After dinner, I went to the New York Times to read more.

But I didn’t find anything without a search. Granted, lots of news today:

  • Goldman Sachs CEO questioned on possible fraud
  • Republicans blocking attempt to reform our financial regulations
  • Stock market down 2% because Greek credit rating cut to “junk”
  • Strict abortion measures enacted in Oklahoma
  • Impacts from Arizona’s immigration laws

So I started trolling around the sections. World: nada. Business: nope, all front page stuff, plus Ford makes a big profit. Technology: Apple iPad related story. Science? Nope. Green? Nope. (Really!) Health? Nope. US: fifth story, something about Robots (turns out to be about the oil disaster).

Good thing for British Petroleum, apparently a lot of other big news pushed their little disaster to the back of the book. (more…)

April 5, 2010

Cape Wind Attacked By Its Own Proponents

Category: Climate Change,Conservation,Policy,Technology – Tom Harrison – 10:32 pm

I am beginning to think Jane Fonda is going to reincarnate (sorry, is she still with us?) and create a sequel to The China Syndrome called The Cape Windrome or something. Today the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation recommended that Cape Wind not be approved. Because what, the waves of yesteryear are going to be different? Come on, let’s get a little real, please?

The single most infuriating example of how the United States is sometimes able to undermine even the simplest, most obvious options is being played out in the great saga of Cape Wind. A small array of wind turbines is planned for Cape Cod Bay, generating a substantial amount of power, efficiently, locally and cleanly. But it represents change, and change is bad. Right? (more…)

January 4, 2010

Using More Electricity During Winter: Why?

Category: Household,Save Electricity,Technology – Tom Harrison – 8:50 am

Every year, we use more electricity in the winter. Once we cut down on the use of electric heat in the basement, I wondered what it was that caused this trend.

Sure, we turn on lights earlier due to shorter days.

But there are other factors, and I am beginning to figure out what they are:

  • More loads of laundry in the dryer: fewer shorts, more layers
  • The gas burner uses circulator pumps to move water around the house’s heating system
  • We use the gas oven more, meaning the “glow bar” I found a while back runs
  • Humidifiers — the ones that create steam are basically boiling water all day!
  • Fish tank heater — the house is cooler, but fishies like 80°F in all seasons (no fishie sweaters I know of)
  • More TV and video games for the kids; less playing outside
  • Christmas tree
  • Probably a few sneaky ones I have not found yet…

Of course I was able to isolate these items just because we have an energy monitor (TED 5000, in our case) — it’s easy to see the readings jump when things come on, like the heat.

We can affect some of these (the cool mist humidifiers are far less costly). Some are just not ones I want to give up on, although the fishie sweaters seem plausible.

And one other item is worth noting: this year we put a lot of effort and a little money into making our house keep in the heat: insulation, and especially air sealing with foam and caulking — it’s pretty clear it’s going to make a big difference. And the less the heat is on, the less those circulator pumps run. These are the kinds of unexpected additive effects you sometimes get in making changes.

October 31, 2009

Google PowerMeter: New (Useful) Features, New Device

Category: Companies,Conservation,Save Electricity,Save Fuel,Technology – Tom Harrison – 3:09 pm

I expected nothing less of Google PowerMeter — week by week, it continues to improve. Now the graph displays my usage compared to expected use, and includes a visual and numeric accounting of my baseline, “Always On” usage compared to total usage. Here’s what my graph for today looks like:


Three Great Things

The expected usage gives you a nice target, and the comparison to others provides a helpful benchmark.

But the new “Always On” measure provides two very helpful bits of information.

First, the darker bar helps isolate the spikes above. For example, the most obvious repeating spike above is the refrigerator — it cycles on about once per hour and runs for perhaps 25 minutes each time, running at a bit over 200W — it’s easy to see that pattern. (more…)

October 5, 2009

TED 5000 and Google PowerMeter: Who Needs Smart Meters?

Category: Companies,Household,Save Electricity,Technology – Tom Harrison – 10:43 pm

ted-5000-google-power-meterGoogle announced today that the TED 5000 (The Energy Detective) will link directly with Google PowerMeter — the TED 5000 scores big!

Update: Tuesday Sept 6th — TED Firmware page reports that Google PowerMeter software will be available this Friday afternoon.

Who cares? Well, I know that real-time energy monitoring devices make a huge difference in behavior, or at least they can.

And I know utilities are going to get to that smart grid “real soon now” (just as soon as they stop hand-typing my electricity bill). Look, there’s a reason that The Electric Company is the worst property in the game Monopoly®.

But seriously, allowing real people to get themselves hooked in to a larger network of data that Google can collect, analyze and do their usual greatness with should offer a few early-adopter types the chance to show the true power of data aggregation again, this time with electrical power.

The Google Power Meter blog says the functionality is enabled in the latest TED 5000 firmware, so I downloaded it … but I cannot see anything different. I already had the 1.0.214 gateway firmware installed, and now have Footprints 1.0.103 installed (the latest as of 11pm EDT, 10/5/09). But I see nothing. The TED 5000 site says little (although there’s now a screenshot of PowerMeter). The Google Power Meter site says little, and the newsgroup has nothing new posted.

Am I just being impatient? Yes! I want my TED 5000 household electrical use data to be on the web so everyone knows that I don’t line dry my clothes (and they know when, too.) Well, also I want to be an über-energy-geek.

More to come. Soon, I hope!

August 22, 2009

TED 5000: Installation Notes and Observations

Category: Technology – Tom Harrison – 6:52 pm

I installed my new TED 5000 (“The Energy Detective”) today, and it’s working — here are some notes for anyone else who may find some of the available documentation a little lacking.

While anyone interested should feel free to read this, it’s mostly intended for other early-adopter types and to save the TED Support folks from questions. It’s pretty detailed, and probably only applies to a subset of TED users. So feel free to skip this post :-). (more…)