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Ben Franklin – America’s First Proponent of Energy Efficiency

Ben Franklin, the first American genius, achieved fame and notoriety for his electricity research, which included that famous kite-flying experiment.  But did you know that he first described the concept of treating energy efficiency as an energy resource?  He memorably stated “A penny saved is a penny earned,” back in the 1700s, but today he would be talking about negawatts and energy efficiency. 

The Smart Grid Dictionary defines energy efficiency as technologies, applications, and services that reduce the consumption of energy without impacting operations or behaviors.  It is that lack of change to behaviors or operations that sets energy efficiency (EE) apart from energy conservation.  EE produces negawatts – and treating it as that “penny earned” has been promoting welcome innovations in technologies and policies that financial and environmental benefits for consumers.

First, improved EE in products means lower total costs of ownership or TCOs for residential and business consumers.  The California Energy Commission recently adopted EE standards for battery chargers, which are vampire loads in just about every home and business.  Those chargers are often plugged in and drawing power even when they are not fulfilling their purpose of charging up a smart phone, mini-vac, or powered toothbrush.  In California alone, a cringe-worthy 5.3 gigawatthours of electricity is spent on chargers, mostly in the form of waste heat.  The standards, which take effect between 2013 – 2017, will require that manufacturers produce chargers that stop drawing power once the device battery is topped off.  That will lower consumers’ electricity bills and reduce the need to invest in additional generation capacity to support these vampire loads.  And that in turn helps keep electricity rates from rising.  California EE standards are reckoned to have saved its state residents over $36 billion since 1977.  That’s a lot of pennies earned.

Second, purposefully designing EE into products will reduce the amount of energy expended for any device’s operations – whether they are always tethered to the grid or reliant on battery power.  Researchers at the University of Michigan have a new technology called Energy-Minimizing Idle Listening that has reduced energy use in mobile devices by 44% in proof of concept testing.  By putting mobile devices into a “subconscious mode’, the device’s normal idle listening state consumes less energy, extending battery charges and reducing electricity consumption.   Another interesting technology trend first articulated by Jonathan Koomey of Stanford University and known as Koomey’s Law states that the amount of computing power per joule doubles every 1.6 years.  (A joule is a measure of energy, whereas a watt is a measure of the rate of energy consumption.)  Essentially, a fixed amount of computing power gets twice as energy efficient just under every two years, which has tremendous implications for our proliferation of electricity-guzzling data centers that support our growing use of cloud-based applications and digital storage.  IEEE’s local Silicon Valley Chapter of the Solid State Circuits Society is sponsoring a course about the fundamentals of low-power design, which portends opportunities for designers of computing devices, who have long understood the need to build in as much EE design as possible, to share their expertise with developers of consumer electronics.  These developments will ultimately reduce the costs of operation for many popular devices.

Third, thinking about energy efficiency as a penny earned enables policy-makers to support decoupling for electric utilities.  The Smart Grid Dictionary defines decoupling as a regulatory and market strategy that allows utilities to invest in and profit from efficiency-based capacity by assuring them a return that is equivalent to sales of electricity.  It means that utilities are not penalized for encouraging their customers to use less electricity.  Today, 30 states do not have pending or established decoupling policies in place for electricity and/or gas, and they should.  Consumers would like utilities to help them reduce their energy bills, but without decoupling, why would utilities negatively impact their revenues?  Understanding the full value of decoupling translates into political will to modify utility business models.  Why do regulators and legislators in these 30 states ignore the opportunities to save money for their citizens?     

Whether we’re looking at improving product designs or market mechanisms to encourage energy efficiency as that “penny earned”, the financial and environmental benefits for consumers are compelling.  Ben Franklin would approve.   

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