Energy efficiency without trying (and with)

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Elisa WoodBy Elisa Wood
June 28, 2012

John Lennon wrote that life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.  Apparently, the same is true of energy efficiency. Energy savings happen when we’re busy doing other things – Internet-based things specifically.

We use email, bank online and download music not to save energy, but to make life easier and more interesting.  Energy efficiency is a happy byproduct.

What online pursuits serve up the most energy savings in day-to-day life?

The Global e-Sustainability Initiative, or GeSI, recently commissioned the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) and the Yankee Group to answer this question. The study,  “Measuring the Energy Reduction Impact of Selected Broadband-Enabled Activities within Households.” looked at eight broadband-related activities in the US, UK, Spain, Italy, Germany and France:  telecommuting, Internet news, online banking, e-commerce, music and video downloads or streaming, e-education, digital photography, and e-mail.

Telecommuting provides the greatest energy savings among the activities (83 to 86 percent). From an energy efficiency perspective, it’s better to log-on to the office than drive there. Reading the news online and participating in e-education offered the least energy savings.  Consumers tend to undertake these activities to complement, not replace, the old-fashion way of doing things. They still read the newspaper and travel to classes, so offset the savings gained by the online activity.

As telecommuting expands, and more of our daily routine takes place online, these eight activities could cut energy use by about two percent or the equivalent of 500 million barrels of oil annually. Not bad, but still small compared with the savings offered by a series of ‘scale’ activities: smart grid, manufacturing and building upgrades, electric cars, combined heat and power.

So while it’s nice that we inadvertently save energy, say by banking online, it won’t revolutionize our energy picture.  But another recent report by the ACEEE shows what might: Intelligent efficiency.

Think systems or cities instead of light bulbs or refrigerators. That’s intelligent efficiency. The US could reduce its energy use by as much as 22 percent by focusing more on system rather than gadget efficiency, says the report “A Defining Framework for Intelligent Efficiency.”

“This is not your father’s device-driven approach to energy efficiency,” said R. Neal Elliott, ACEEE associate director for research.  “A large portion of our past efficiency gains came from improvements in individual products, appliances, and equipment, such as light bulbs, electric motors, or cars and trucks. And while device-level technology improvements will continue to play an important role, looking ahead we must take a systems-based approach to dramatically scale up energy efficiency to meet our future energy challenges. Through intelligent efficiency, utility systems, interconnected cities, transportation systems, and communications networks can become the new normal across the United States and will undergird national and regional economies that, even in the face of increasingly scarce resources, grow and thrive.”

ACEEE cites several examples of intelligent efficiency already in the works. Among them is Envision Charlotte, an attempt to reduce energy use in city buildings through a partnership of Duke Energy, Cisco, and Verizon. Interactive video monitors in the lobbies of downtown office buildings display the collective energy used, in near real time, by buildings in the core of the North Carolina city. People pass by the monitors and see the easily readable data, learn energy efficiency ideas, and hear about success stories. They become more conscious of energy through this repeated exposure and their behavior changes – that’s the theory. Duke Energy expects the project to reduce electricity usage 20 percent by 2016 in uptown Charlotte’s business community.

One important point here. None of this – our online household activities or intelligent efficiency – excludes a tried-and-true approach to save energy: utility sponsored programs. A third recent study by ACEEE (Yes, this is a productive organization.) finds that utilities increased energy efficiency budgets four fold in a decade, from $1.1 billion in 2000 to $4.6 billion in  2010. Often when utilities save energy rather than buy it, it turns out to be the cheapest approach.

“The concept of energy efficiency as a utility resource is really very simple,” said Marty Kushler, ACEEE senior fellow and co-author of the report, ‘Three Decades and Counting: A Historical Review and Current Assessment of Electric Utility Energy Efficiency Activity in the States.’ “To keep an electric system in balance, you can either add supply resources or reduce customer demand.  Utilities, regulators, and policymakers have increasingly come to realize that it is far cheaper to reduce demand through energy efficiency programs than it is to construct, fuel, and operate additional electric generating plants.”

The report found that energy efficiency remains the lowest cost energy resource available to utilities by a wide margin. Saving electricity through efficiency is about one-third the cost of generating it from a power plant.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that states have set aggressive energy efficiency goals; no states are scaling back. Instead, “the momentum is toward growth across the map,” says the utility report.

Sometimes we save energy inadvertently, and sometimes by design. Whichever, it is clear that our digital economy, combined with our increasing understanding of the programs and behaviors that lead to energy savings, create a clear path for growth in energy efficiency.

Read more articles by Elisa Wood at

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About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of She has been writing about energy for more than three decades for top industry publications. Her work also has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.


  1. Sarah Bradford says:

    Great article Elisa. We certainly needs to focus on system wide improvements. However, provided it takes massive infrastructure change and equally large investment from both governments and private sectors, I see that in near future we will still be relying upon device level energy efficiency.

    Until the day comes when electricity generation and distribution becomes more eco-friendly and efficient can’t we focus on building more green homes and efficient offices?

    Going green actually not only make sense but it also make cents. I got my home green certified last year by installing solar power, re-doing the windows and installing a number of gadgets that helps me to automate the energy savings process. For example, I replaced all my old power extension blocks with these PwrUSB smart power strips that lets me schedule a calendar regarding when to turn on and off my garden lights, my computers and media center appliances. You can actually reach breakeven on these investment within years if not months!

    Trying to save precious energy and reduce our carbon footprint take will power, efforts and time. But there are so many products that can help us save energy in our everyday lives these days, at least on device level – there shouldn’t be any excuse to wait till systems are changed.