The Optimistic Futurist: Keeping up with the Joneses via conservation

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 27, 2012

By Francis Koster
When I think about what we need to satisfy our society’s basic needs, water is at the top of my list. Not only do we need it to drink and raise food and water our lawns, it is a key ingredient to keeping our current electrical generation system working.
Making electricity requires a lot of water to cool the generation plants. All told, a United States-wide tally shows that power generation requires 655 billion gallons of water a year.
It takes just about one gallon of water to cool the electrical generation plant needed to run one 60-watt light bulb for one hour. The water used to run four such bulbs for a year will fill a family swimming pool. Multiply that by all the light bulbs, refrigerators, TVs, computers and other electrical devices in your home, and you can see where I am headed. In times of drought, we need to be prudent.
The United States set more than 4,000 new records for high temperatures between January and July 2012. Demand for air conditioning soared, resulting in a need for electrical generation stations to work harder. These generation stations sit on rivers so that the water can be used to cool the machinery.
The same heat records that cause an increase in electrical demand warm the rivers. Warmer water does not cool as well as cold water, so one of two things has to happen — either the plant uses more water for cooling (which is evaporated, resulting in less water being passed on downstream) or the plant has to run at lower generating capacity. In other words, just when changing weather makes us use more electricity, less could become available.
Some utilities are searching for creative ways to encourage customers to use less electricity. There are three major schools of thought about how to bring this about. You can make a moral argument and appeal to a family’s conscience (this does not work well except in a short-term emergency, like after a tornado); you can charge more (this works pretty well but hurts poor families whose usage is already bare bones); or you can give customers information that shows how they rank in usage compared to other families. Surprise! This causes the largest behavior change. Turns out the Economist Magazine was wrong when it said, “The only byproduct of energy efficiency is wealth.” In some cases, you get strutting rights as well.
Who says we are not a competitive nation?
This can be seen in programs used by more than 65 U.S. utilities that have been feeding information to their customers about how their power use stacks up against their neighbors. The home-energy reports provide utility customers with information about how their energy consumption compares to their neighbors, and offer personalized ways to save energy and money.
The programs, run by an energy information management company, Opower, take energy usage data from the utility and combine it with public tax records, including square footage of the home, presence of swimming pools and so forth, to drive energy savings. Customers receive targeted efficiency tips based on their home profile.
The results of the programs have been promising. A recent study found that customers who receive this type of information save on average 2 percent on their energy bills.
Earlier this year, Opower launched an application in partnership with Facebook and the National Resources Defense Council that hopes to drive even greater savings by letting utility customers compare their energy consumption with their Facebook friends. The application,, allows utility customers to upload their usage data and then share and compare with other friends on the app. Currently, 17 utilities that partner with Opower allow their customers to automatically upload their usage data through the application. Utility customers that do not live within one of those utilities’ service territories can still participate, but if they do not, they have to upload their data manually.
Other electronic programs allow you to track your home energy consumption and turn on and off lights and other appliances remotely. For example, if you were on a business trip and were notified by your home energy use monitor that your energy usage back home was too high, you could simply touch your cell phone screen and turn off some energy hogs. One such app is called HomeMaster. You can locate information on this and others by searching on “Home energy monitoring apps.”
Sharing energy use information in this way with customers enables them to help reduce their electrical bills, head off electrical shortages during heat waves, save precious water and create cleaner air — truly a win-win-win.
Using existing knowledge from success stories found around our country can create a better future if we put our minds to it.
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Francis P. Koster lives in Kannapolis. His “Optimistic Futurist” column appears every other Sunday. For more information, visit