The Science of Sustainability

Energy Geeks Converge at ACEEE's Boot Camp

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ACEEE summer camp

The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) was formed in the 1980s to facilitate get-togethers of the nations energy efficiency experts—researchers, academics, and practitioners. It has grown into an organization that advocates for smart energy policy in the halls of Congress, and publishes its own research. And it still gets the energy geeks together to talk about energy efficiency in buildings, in industry, and in transportation. Lately the organization has focused more attention on human behavior and attitudes towards energy. All the technology in the world won’t save the planet unless people use it.

Every two years the staff of the magazine I edit, Home Energy, is invited down to the Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove, California, to publish a daily newsletter for the biennial ACEEE Summer Study of Energy Efficiency in Buildings. The conference is unofficially called “Summer Camp,” and “Energy Boot Camp”. The most recent Summer Study finished up last Friday (August 17). I want to share with QUEST readers some of what the plenary speakers had to offer us this year. Follow the links if you want to know more about the speakers and their messages.

Sunday Plenary: Something of a Study in Contrasts

Jane Long, Chair of California’s Energy Future Project, spoke on “California’s Energy Future—The View to 2050 Summary Report.” The study, conducted by the California Council on Science and Technology, is a work in process. Long asked the ques­tion “Is it possible to meet California Governor Jerry Brown’s Executive Order to go 80% below 1990 green house gas (GHG) emissions by 2050?” The California legislature passed Assembly Bill (AB) 32 in 2006, requiring a drop in GHG emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

In order to meet the goal of Governor Brown’s Executive Order, every square foot of building space would need to be touched. The retrofit of existing buildings would be the major cost, surprisingly, while making new buildings more energy ef­ficient is much less expensive, compared to business as usual. Long raised a question that was discussed at Summer Study. Is it better to demolish buildings rather than retrofit them? Along with retrofitting every building in the state, to achieve an 80% reduction in 1990 GHG emis­sions by 2050, automobile fuel efficiency would have to reach an average of 75 mpg.

Amory Lovins, Chairman and Chief Scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), which he cofounded in 1982, discussed his latest book, Reinventing Fire. Lovins asked us to re-think our assumptions about energy. Can we conceive of fuel efficiency in cars in the range of 125-240 mile per gallon equivalent (mpge) (these are electric cars)? It’s possible with cars made from lightweight carbon fiber. Can we imagine buildings in cold climates that meet 90% of the heating energy needed during the coldest winter nights without fuel of any kind, but with smart, integrative design strategies instead? These are things happen­ing right now behind the scenes. Lovins’ house in Snowmass, Colorado, is an example. He grows bananas and other tropical fruit there year round.

Monday Plenary: A Night in the Life of the Summer Study

The Monday night plenary speaker was Jon Wellinghoff, Chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). His talked was called “A Night In the Life of the Grid”. Using a colorful map of the Midwestern United States, Wellinghoff described a grid in need of some more coordination, so that electricity load and production correlate more directly, therefore causing the electricity grid to operate more efficiently. A system in steady state is more efficient than one that is constantly ramping up and down—this is true of cars, HVAC systems, and the electricity grid.

In Wellinghoff’s example, the blue states are the ones with an overabundance of electric power, making it relatively cheap, and the red states, the ones where electricity is scarce and expensive. At 1 am the area around Terre Haute, Indiana, is desper­ate for electric power, while up north in Illinois, nuclear power is cheap and plentiful and west­ward in Iowa, wind generation is at a peak. Up by Fort Wayne they are burning kilowatts for next to nothing. Making the whole grid more efficient requires the participation of homeowners as well as factory bosses. On the residential end use side, Wellinghoff sees price signals offering individuals the greatest opportunity for control of their energy and the cost of that energy. Imagine utility customers becoming utility partners. Imagine providing power back to the grid from your car battery, and getting paid for it!

Tuesday Plenary: Something Very Big is Happening in Japan

Andrew DeWit, Professor in the School of Policy Studies at Rikkyo University, spoke on Tuesday night. DeWit described nothing less than a battle taking place upon the ruins of the Fukushima power plants, between sustainability and crushing debt; same-old same-old, and the new green economy.

DeWit described the “Hashimoto Phenomenon”. Hashimoto is an Osaka-based politician “with more votes than Michael Bloomberg has money,” and is using his influence on the side of green energy, against the old guard that includes the former owners of Tokyo Electric Power (the utility has been national­ized) and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). What’s also new is what DeWit described as “Twitter-populism”. Average people have become enraged at the lies and lack of ac­countability shown by TEPCO in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 that nearly destroyed four nuclear power plants and spread radiation tens of miles into the interior of Japan. And they are demanding change, which is a new phenomenon in Japanese culture.

Whether Japan will go green over the next two years will be determined later this summer and in the fall. Energy is a core issue in Japan politics and policy making and it is bringing about social and political changes at lightning speed. Stay tuned. Japan may be the first of many nations to make the hard choices to move to a sustainable green economy or sink under the weight of inertia and vested interests.

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Jim Gunshinan

About the Author ()

Jim Gunshinan is the editor of Home Energy, the magazine of sustainable home building and renovation.