Using electricity to save the planet

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By Elisa Wood

July 9, 2009

When it comes to energy efficiency, it used to be the big guys that mattered. Policymakers and market leaders focused on manufacturers, refiners and others that gobbled up lots of kilowatt hours.

It’s not surprising. Manufacturers create bang for the buck. Better motors, refrigeration or combined heat and power can lead to six-digit dollar savings — far more impressive than the $10 per month an aggressive household effort might generate.

An energy attorney once told me an interesting story in this regard. He asked his family to turn down the thermostat to save money; they said they would rather just skip ordering pizza once a month.

Household efficiency often doesn’t seem worth the effort. But a shift is occurring; efficiency efforts are increasingly focused on the residential sector.

In fact, a study released this week by the Electric Power Research Institute shows that homes, in aggregate, offer greater technical potential for energy savings and reductions in carbon dioxide emissions than stores or factories. And it does not require use of refrigerators that talk to the grid, glowing energy orbs, or other cutting edge technologies to significantly reduce emissions. Instead the report finds carbon reductions in switching out common home devices that use fossil fuels with those that use electricity.

EPRI looked at household activities that use energy: clothes drying, heating, cooling, cooking, warming pools. It then found electric technologies that allow us to perform these activities with less fossil fuel use; a heat pump for example might replace a natural gas furnace.

What electric devices did the best job replacing fossil fuel? EPRI’s short list for households includes heat pump clothes dryers, heat pump pool heaters, air source heat pumps for heating and cooling, ground source heat pumps for heating and cooling, heat pump water heaters and in the Northeast, electric instantaneous water heaters.

The report also cites what regions offer the most potential for energy savings. Not surprising (See my July 2 blog, “Energy bill could open Southeast’s EE market”, the South offers the most potential, followed by the Midwest, Northeast, and the West, when residential, commercial and industrial energy use is considered. For reductions in CO2 emissions, the potential is greatest in the Northeast, followed by the South, the Midwest, and then the West.

Of course, savings achieved by switching from fossil fuels to electricity will be even greater as the nation introduces more renewable energy into its power generation fleet. EPRI says a good next step might be study how great those savings could be.

For years the electric power industry has taken heat for being a polluter. Odd to think it could also be what saves the planet.

For more details see: “The Potential to Reduce CO2 Emissions by Expanding End-Use Applications of Electricity,”

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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.