Efficiency and Conservation: An Eco-Enthusiast’s Batman and Robin

Posted on 19. Aug, 2009 by in Design & Culture

Unless you’ve been living under a rock lately, you’ve probably heard about the detailed report released by McKinsey and Co. espousing the merits of energy efficiency as the cheapest and surest way to keep our lights on and clean up our planet. Their findings will no doubt inspire (and surprise): with a massive efficiency push over the next decade, the U.S. economy could save $700 billion and meet 23% of America’s future electricity demand by 2020.

Conservation versus Energy Efficiency

While I am a huge believer in the virtues of energy efficiency, I cannot help but question whether efficiency through technological improvements can, by itself, deliver all of the alluring economic and environmental benefits outlined in the study. Instead, I believe that a requisite to any strong and unified push for greater energy efficiency must be an equally aggressive push for energy conservation. Only when energy efficiency is combined with smart energy use practices — like turning off lights, computers, and electronics that are not in use — can maximum benefits be achieved at the lowest cost to society.

The terms “energy conservation” and “energy efficiency” carry different messages. “Energy conservation” concerns the personal choice to use less energy in the present, perhaps for less consumption for the future (think behavioral). In contrast, “energy efficiency” refers to using energy more productively and less wastefully, not necessarily going without (think technological).

Understanding Your Company’s Impact

There is perhaps no better way to appreciate the importance of energy conservation than to educate ourselves about the energy we use while at work. Understanding the impact that individual energy usage habits have on the environment (and the bottom line) is important. However, the reality is that most people have very little connection to how much energy they use in the office or at home. Practicing these simple steps will significantly improve your understanding of energy use and the connection between your company’s light switch and global climate change.

The first thing to do in your quest to understand your energy usage, assuming you have the time to do it, is to locate your electric meter. The location and access to your meter will depend on the building type, lease type, and who pays the utility bills. It’s best to ask your operations or facility manager for this information. Most meters are in the rear or side of the building, but if you can’t find it, give your utility company a call and they should be able to tell you where yours is located.

Next, you’ll want to do a fair amount of experimentation. Stand beside your meter and observe its movement for a couple of minutes. Your meter will either be an older analog meter or a newer digital one. If you have an older analog meter, you will see a little wheel that spins around at a continuous rate indicating that electricity (kilowatt hours) is being used. If you have a digital meter, you will see some numbers adding up. This directly represents the power that you are currently using.

You’ll then want to go inside and turn off everything in the office that you can directly control (central HVAC may be out of your control). If people are still in the office, you might want to alert them as to what you are doing. Turn off the lights, and unplug your fax machine, refrigerator, and any phantom power loads. Now go back outside and look at your meter. What you’ll notice, if you’ve turned off everything, is barely any movement on the meter because you aren’t pulling much, if any, juice at all.

Once you’ve done that, head back inside and turn everything back on! All lights, space heaters, AC, and appliances, and plug in those chargers. Then head back to the meter and you’ll notice it counting up/turning at a very fast pace. Watch it for a minute or two – or until you can’t bear it anymore – and then head in and turn everything back off.

Understanding this connection between your office’s energy usage and your meter will create a mental device that you can use when thinking about energy and cost savings. You’ll begin asking yourself important questions you never once thought you would: Is the wheel turning fast or slow? Are the numbers shooting up or barely moving?

At the end of the day, what’s important is connecting yourself to what you are doing, what you are a part of, and chances are, you’ll want to do better. So much energy is being wasted (just ask the folks at McKinsey) simply because we do not know we are doing it. Educate yourself and you’ll not only feel better about wasting less, but you’ll save money at the same time. Energy conservation is an area where homeowners, business owners, and property managers (anyone paying the bills) have a tremendous potential to impact the planet and the pocketbook.

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