One of the great, overlooked stories of recent decades is the vast improvement in the productivity of American agriculture. Farmers grow more crops on less land, lowering the cost of food–and giving all of us more money to spend on other things.
A similar opportunity awaits in energy. If we could heat and cool our homes and run our appliances while using less electricity, the economy would be more productive–and money that’s now being wasted to be better spent.
So says Alex Laskey, the president and founder of OPower, a fast-growing company whose purpose is to help consumers save energy.
“Look at agriculture in this country,” Alex told me when we met at OPower’s offices in Arlington, Va. “From 1950 to 2000, on the average acre that was being cultivated, productivity grew by 291%. At the same time, the average amount of household income that was spent on food went from 20 to 9 percent. It dropped in half.”
“Energy is a similarly scarce resource,” he went on. “There ought to be a similar effort into improving energy productivity. There’s no reason why we can’t triple energy productivity over the next 50 years.”
That’s an ambitious goal, but one worth pursuing because energy productivity drives competitiveness and job creation. [See my recent blogpost, Electric cars are sexy. Energy efficiency, not so much, for an explanation of why efficiency is the best source of green jobs.] OPower has developed tools to help people save energy and save money, and in the process help utility companies–its real customers–avoid building costly new power-generation facilities.
I’ve been following OPower, which was launched in 2007, for more than two years. [See my 2010 blogpost, OPower, peer pressure and climate change] The company was started by Alex (at right) and Dan Yates, who were friends at Harvard and are now in their mid-30s. Alex came out of politics, working briefly in the Clinton White House and on Al Gore’s presidential campaign, while Dan started a successful educational software company.
“Starting this company was a way to have an impact on the environment,” Alex told me, but what’s surprised him is how much he’s enjoyed being an entrepreneur. Although OPower, which has about 250 employees, is young and small, Alex and Dan have put a lot of thought into how they hire, and how to build a company culture.
Opower is doing well. The company has more than 70 utility companies — including 8 of the 10 largest in the US — as its customers. Through those utilities, the company reaches about 14 million homes, about one in eight of US homes. A privately-held, venture-backed firm, OPower doesn’t disclose its revenues or profits.
Utilities pay OPower to communicate with their customers about their electricity usage, using technology that’s as simple as a letter comparing their usage to that of their neighbors and as complex as a Facebook app inviting people to compete with friends. In some states, the utilities are able to pass the costs of these energy-saving programs, plus a profit, onto their customers in the form of higher electricity rates. This makes sense–since a utility company can raise its rates to build a new power plant, why shouldn’t it be able to raise rates to promote energy savings that avoid the need for capital outlays?
Utilities also figure that OPower can help them get closer to customers and avoid being disintermediated by rivals or potential rivals (Microsoft, Verizon, Comcast, Google) who offer energy management services. “Keeping the lights on is no longer enough,” Alex says. “Utilities need to provide better services to their customers, better information, better control.”
For their part, consumers get insight into their home energy usage costs, as well as advice on how to curb them. They typically respond by reducing their bills by 2.5 to 4% a month, Alex says. That’s not a whole lot, but the savings add up when you’re talking about millions of customers. Recently, OPower said it had saved one terrawatt of energy–enough to power a city of 250,000 people for a year. [By comparison, the entire solar industry in the US produced 1.7 terrawatts of energy last year.]
And Opower is just getting started. As utilities roll out the so-called smart grid, and smart meters, we’re moving closer to a world in which homeowners have real-time data on their electricity usage, insight on how to save power and technology, like remote-controlled thermostats, that make it easier to do so. We’ll still enjoy hot showers and cold beer (as Amory Lovins likes to say) but we’ll use less energy and spend less money for them.
That’s a win for business, consumers and the planet.
by Greg Rucks, via Rocky Mountain Institute
On this first day of summer, many car owners are likely to experience the following scenario: enter your car to leave work for the day and the temperature is sweltering—much hotter than outside. The ignition, steering wheel, and seat surface are almost too hot to touch. You roll down your windows or turn on the air conditioner (or both) to get some air moving to quickly mitigate the sauna-like conditions.
Cars are a classic case of the greenhouse effect: visible light is absorbed by the various surfaces within the vehicle. As those surfaces re-emit that energy as heat, glass—opaque to the long-wavelength radiation associated with infrared heat energy—traps it inside.
This is more than just a nuisance on hot days. Of the oil consumed by U.S. passenger vehicles, 5.5 percent is used for air conditioning. For today’s average internal-combustion-driven vehicle, air conditioner use results in up to a 26 percent reduction in mpg. For an electric vehicle, this translates to a 36 percent reduction in range.
Vehicle air conditioning systems are sized to handle worst-case temperatures such as the hottest of hot summer days, with interior temperatures well in excess of 110 F. Stringent human comfort standards require that the temperature be brought within a comfortable range—typically around 70 F—within minutes. A rarely-encountered, temporary condition thus determines the permanent capacity, size, weight, and cost of the evaporator, coolant, fans, ducts, and compressor that make up the air conditioning system. Given their mostly unused excess capacity, these systems then operate at suboptimal efficiency in moderate conditions—the majority of the time.
By using approaches that harness an understanding of heat transfer, human physiology and psychology, and advanced technology, thermal comfort (not to mention fuel economy and EV range) can be improved in tomorrow’s vehicles—while making a substantial step toward U.S. oil independence.
Finding the Leverage Points
Imagine the possibilities if our cars took lessons from nature. For example, a parked car’s cabin temperature could be maintained closer to the outside temperature by passively drawing in outside air. Termites make use of this technique in Africa and Australia, inducing passive convection airflow to cool the interior of their mounds by up to 20 F.
A 2007 study conducted by the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) indicates that strategically-placed vents that induce natural convection airflow could do something similar for vehicles, reducing interior cabin temperature on hot days by 11 F, and allowing a 25 percent reduction in air conditioning compressor power and a significantly downsized air conditioning system. This zero-energy approach provides nearly equivalent benefit to forcing outside air into the cabin by running the ventilation fans at medium power while parked.
If worst-case maximum cabin air temperatures could be reduced, drivers would not only save on fuel costs associated with blasting their air conditioners, but would further benefit from the increased space and reduced weight and cost of a downsized (but equally capable) air conditioning system. Best of all, drivers would experience increased comfort due to experiencing cooler temperatures upon entering the vehicle, and have to worry less about leaving their groceries or dog in the car on a moderately warm day.
Expanding the Problem
Passively cooling the car’s interior to reduce heat loads enables a smaller system to provide the same comfort, but passive techniques can’t get us all the way there. Vehicles still need some type of active system to provide ventilation and deliver thermal comfort to the passenger. But is the current approach of blowing air from the dashboard the best way to do it?
No, suggests research from NREL and the Center for the Built Environment at University of California, Berkeley. There are several alternative techniques that could actually improve comfort with reduced energy consumption relative to today’s approaches.
Humans maintain thermal comfort by achieving a heat balance. If the heat produced by the body’s metabolic processes is not dissipated at a constant rate, heat builds up in the body and we feel hot. If heat is lost faster than it is produced metabolically, we feel cold. Our own thermoregulation system has built-in means of heating us up (shivering to increase our metabolic rate), or cooling us down (sweating to provide evaporative cooling). So long as the produced and incoming heat is balanced with the outgoing heat—barring any extreme or asymmetric local temperatures from one part of the body to the next—we feel comfortable.
In a car, there are several ways to achieve this balance. Blowing air from the dash is one of them, but it turns out to be among the least efficient. Because the passenger is in constant contact with the seat, cooling via direct contact becomes a reliable means of efficiently dissipating heat.
Ventilated seats are not a new concept in the auto industry, but electric vehicle manufacturers are taking renewed notice of the important contribution they can make to improve range if their efficiency is considered within the thermal comfort system as a whole. The seat can also provide a delivery platform for something UC Berkeley calls “task ambient cooling” whereby small fans deliver close-proximity air flow to the face and neck, among the parts of the body that influence thermal comfort the most. This air flow can furthermore be delivered via “transient” means, providing small bursts of cooling on an intermittent basis: an approach that elevates the thermal comfort response of the passenger relative to the “steady state” airflow approach typical of today’s vehicles.
RMI looks for high-leverage, high-impact ways to reduce U.S. oil dependence and move our country toward a petroleum-free U.S. transportation system by 2050. Tackling the problem of thermal comfort in vehicles could dramatically reduce oil consumption in the near term, while enhancing the value proposition of EVs by lending customers greater range, savings, security, and comfort.
Greg Rucks is a Consultant for Transportation and Industry at the Rocky Mountain Institute. This piece was originally published at RMI’s Outlet and was reprinted with permission.
Evidence of some stability returning to the solar PV sector has been welcomed by industry players.
Scottish renewable energy company owner, Andrew Lyle at Locogen agreed that confidence was coming back to the sector, stating that “people are certainly still interested in solar”.
Lyle added that there had been a few Solar FiT “winners” in the early months of this year, however, as a result of the delay to the reductions originally set for December 2011.
In Scotland, for example, there was a sharp rise in installations between December 13, 2011, and March 3, 2012, a period which produced 5,365 installations.
The further one month delay to the most recent planned solar FiT cut, moving the starting point from July to August, is also expected to benefit the PV market.
Renewable Energy Recruitment Consultancy, Allen & York have a number of solar job opportunities across the UK and Europe, including: