Five Percent: Conserve Energy

Climate Change Is Important: Energy Conservation is the First Step


December 24, 2010

A Merry Christmas for Exxon: Crude over $91/bbl

Category: Climate Change,Economics – Tom Harrison – 3:29 pm

Light Sweet Crude Over $91 at End of 2010

Where She Stops Nobody Knows

Crude Oil prices have been on the rise this month, and most are projecting they’ll continue to increase.

There are two groups of people who say things like “Oh, yeah!” when passing a gas station selling unleaded for $3.09/gallon, or fist-pump when they hear that light sweet crude is selling for $91.41/bbl.

Rex Tillerson and his cronies in the oil business (e.g. Republican Party)…

and

Me (and my family and some others).

Our reasons are different.

Rex wants money. And he’ll get it.

I want climate change and related legislation. And I’ll get it … eventually.

Am I A Bad Person For Wanting Oil Prices To Rise?

No, I am not a bad person.

The bad person is all those in our Senate who failed to recognize the importance of climate change, and deniers, and all the others who are foolishly preventing a rational response to climate change.

Most of these people know they mainly want to retain power, or remove people from power. They know what they are doing, and that it is wrong. These are bad people.

To be sure, rising oil prices tend to hurt many people, mostly the ones with less money (a recurring theme these days). Here in the northeast, many people heat their houses with oil. People use gasoline to drive to work. It’s real.

It’s so real that one could argue in the last big oil price spike, it set the national agenda and was a factor in electing our President. Some would even argue that high oil prices were the straw that broke the camel’s back, sending us into the Great Recession. High oil prices hurt.

How High Oil Prices Help

However, high oil prices also do a few other things:

  1. High prices help remind us that we’re dependent on oil (and other energy)
  2. High prices help demonstrate that relatively small price increase signals can result in significant reductions in consumption
  3. High prices also demonstrate that change is temporary; when prices fall again, so will our memory
  4. High prices let us know that putting a price on carbon would help us finally get off this roller-coaster

Because the US Senate failed to act on climate change in 2010 (blame whoever you want, it doesn’t matter: we failed) the world will take even longer to start dealing with the issues of climate change in a real way.

(I recognize that oil is a relatively small contributor to GHG emissions compared to coal and natural gas. Price isn’t the point. As we have seen lots of things change when oil prices increase. It’s not just increased fuel efficiency — everything about energy is affected. It hits people in their wallets, and, whether for the right reasons or not, they react.)

So all we can do now is hope for oil prices to rise. Because of the reasons cited, high oil prices seems to be the only thing that will awaken us as a nation sufficiently to result in longer-term legislative response to climate issues.

December 6, 2010

Step 2: Insulate, Step 1: Stop Drafts

Category: Energy Audit,Household,Save Fuel – Tom Harrison – 1:38 pm

Failed attempt to seal my whole house fan

My First Attempt: Failure (Blue = Bad)

A while back, I had an energy audit and found that my house leaked like a sieve — a condition that left our efforts to insulate, replace windows, replace the gas burner and so on all waiting for me to wake up and smell the … fresh outdoor air.

The audit pointed out where the drafts were. We sealed. We caulked. We foamed. We had all of the identified problems addressed, mostly. And then (as a favor) our energy auditor returned and did a re-test, and found places we had missed. By “we” I mean “I’.

Holey Hole, Batman!

Insulated and Sealed Better Second Time

B&D Thermal Leak Detector: 62 Degrees

The whole house fan was one big remaining hole that I proudly asserted having fixed for $20 — I had built a box out of insulating foam board. I had put a nice cover over the fan, box corners sealed with duct tape, and made a nice seal between the cover and the floor. But the follow-up blower-door test showed: it was still a big hole in the house. By that winter, I knew — I could put my hand up and feel the cool air tumbling down from the attic. For another $8 I fixed the rest of the problem this fall. (more…)

November 15, 2010

Review: Cool It — Made Me Think, Twice

Category: Climate Change,Green Reviews – Tom Harrison – 9:10 pm

Cool It

Think

I saw the movie Cool It based on the book of the same name, by Bjørn Lomborg. You should either read the book or see the movie.

And then you should think a little. Actually, think a lot, for this movie is very clever, I think.

The movie is well-crafted, if not as slickly produced as movies such as Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. In particular, Cool It presents a different take on climate change than Inconvenient Truth. It is convincing — skipping between scenes of the youthful Lomburg in his Greenpeace days, to his canonical assertion, which is that to fight climate change, we’re spending our money the wrong way, and efforts to date have been largely ineffective and fantastically cost-ineffective.

But something did not seem to quite “add up” to me. That’s when I started thinking again.
(more…)

November 8, 2010

It’s Not Nice to Fool Mother Nature (Irony Exemplified)

Category: Fun – Tom Harrison – 10:09 pm

Do you recall this prescient (if completely misguided) ad?

This ad from the 1970’s had it all about right. It’s not nice to fool mother nature.

I have recently read Beyond Smoke and Mirrors and am now reading Four Fish (both in Kindle format, of course) and if there’s anything to be learned, it’s simple: it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature. I recommend both books, and will try to find time to say something more than “you should read them” soon. Until then…

(What “delicious” irony that Chiffon Margarine, laughing in the face of Mother Nature herself was hawking a product similar to butter, made of corn oil. Oops — we now think it’s far worse for our health than the butter it was trying to fool Mother Nature with. And in a related news item, Mother Nature was recently rushed to the hospital suffering chest pains.)

November 1, 2010

Climate Change: Science vs. Ignorance, Fear and Power

Category: 5%'s Top 10 List,Climate Change – Tom Harrison – 5:29 pm

Climate change is a technical subject and few of us are true experts. I am not an expert, so I am faced with a choice of accepting the findings of science or denying it. Denial is common in history, even though science has usually been right. The Earth is not the center of the universe, but this view threatened a great power of the time, and Galileo was locked up for heresy. Today we know science was on the right track, but it shook the foundations of belief, and power.

Today we have a similar situation. The implications of climate change are far more than simply “inconvenient” — they are a fundamental threat to the current world order. The response by those under threat has been to couch it in vague terms involving liberty, freedom — enrolling and manipulating an army of foot soldiers who are kept ignorant of the facts and fighting a righteous battle for truth, justice and the American way.

But the truth is, the energy companies are holding the purse strings — energy is money is power. The company and people who own energy are now powerful beyond our ability to understand. They control part of the media, they elect our officials, and they are getting more and more powerful. Just like the cigarette companies, they know that their product is harmful — those in power know that climate change is real.

Eventually the cigarette companies were neutralized … when their CEOs’ faces were lined up in front of Congress. Eventually the energy companies will get theirs. Millions of people died early deaths because of the delay tactics of the cigarette companies — we’re faced with an even greater threat from climate change. Recent reporting has begun to reveal the lies and motives, and the faces behind them. But it’s not enough, and we’re losing through inaction and delay. (more…)

October 8, 2010

Multiplication in Fourth Grade — A Great Mystery

Category: Climate Change,Observations,Policy – Tom Harrison – 1:01 pm

One of the 9's Tricks (photo: Christy Green)

I have a 4th grader learning multiplication and division. She asks “Why do I need to know this?” For her, multiplication is a deep, abstract mystery.

My 8th grade son understands because he’s doing algebra and uses multiplication every day. But when he was in 4th grade, he asked the same question my daughter asks now.

He tried to explain why she needs to know. I tried to explain also.

I have learned that there’s no amount of explanation that will convince a 4th grader why it’s important to learn multiplication. They do it because they have to. They have teachers, and grades, and someone says they have to.

What Will Motivate People To Think About Energy?

Recently, I have been thinking about what will motivate people to do energy monitoring. (more…)

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 28, 2010

Always On: Hunting, Finding and Saving Electricity (Still!)

Category: Household,Save Electricity,Tips – Tom Harrison – 10:28 pm

Phantom Power Hunt

Always On (photo: uberculture)

As part of my participation in a beta test for PlottWatt (very cool), I have come to understand that our house’s “always on” electrical load accounts for about one third of our consumption. Perhaps more vampires? Doesn’t seem plausible.

The only way to find out: measure each outlet with a Kill-A-Watt! (Can you say “obsessive“?) But occasional obsessiveness is good for the soul. And budget.

So on the last grey Saturday, me and my trusty Kill-a-Watt went around seeing if we could answer the question: how much could we save?

The answer was neither encouraging nor discouraging: it was simply illuminating. (And, another $70/year, tax free savings — see the link to my spreadsheet below.)

And isn’t that what it’s all about? (more…)

September 21, 2010

PlotWatt at Energy Circle, and Programmable Thermostats at Hohm

Category: News,Save Electricity,Save Fuel,Tips – Tom Harrison – 12:49 pm

PlotWatt logoHere are a couple of posts I have written elsewhere. Everything you want to know about how (not) to program your thermostat, posted on the Microsoft Hohm blog, and a pretty cool post about an incredibly cool new bit of software for recognizing patterns in electricity use data with pretty pictures and all, called PlotWatt.

I never have time to write here any 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…)