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Rapid Advances in Energy Conservation Challenge Electric Utilities

by Francis P. Koster, Ed.D.

Scientists and engineers are rolling out an ever expanding list of neat tools to help solve both environmental and public health issues caused by some of the ways we make electricity.

One of the side effects will likely be an involuntary transformation of the electrical system of the United States. Soon.

The most recent report shows that 37% of all electricity made in the United States comes from burning coal.[1] Burning coal is much worse for human health than most people know. Our roughly 500 coal plants cause over 200,000 emergency room visits each year, 20,000 heart attacks, and contribute heavily to the asthma now suffered by one in ten of our kids. All this misery has a national cost of over $100 billion annually[2]. Not the path to prosperity.

The good news is that there are new products on the market that you can buy and install to reduce our need to use coal.

To cite just one example, modern energy conserving electric lights are getting much cheaper astonishingly fast.  To understand the importance of this, think back to the last time you had to change an light bulb. If you touched it when it was lit, chances are you burned your hand.

Lighting consumes 17% of all electricity used in the United States.[3] 90% of all that electricity does not actually make things brighter.....it makes heat. In other words, when we can make light without heat, the need to generate electricity for lighting goes down by around 90% - and so does a big piece of your air conditioning cost.

And now there are products available at your nearest hardware store that can do exactly that. For example, compare the latest LED lights with the light bulb you grew up with.   The new 6 watt LED bulb produces the same amount of light as the old 60 watt bulb - without the heat. [4] You save twice - a 90% reduction in electric bills for lighting, and a 90% reduction in the costs to remove the waste heat via air conditioning.

The price of LED bulbs has fallen 85% since 2008.[5]

Can you see how this will impact the electric utility industry? Over time, when counting both the savings in lighting and air conditioning, they could lose around a fifth of their sales.

So here is where it gets hopeful - These light bulbs are just the hint of things to come. If everyone installed the latest and greatest light bulbs, modern air conditioning, window films, neat new spray on insulation, painted school roofs white, and installed literally hundreds of other technological improvements, we could take major steps locally to reduce health costs and slow climate change.

The challenge for the utilities is that the public utilities commission allows them to profit from owning large coal generation system - but not when you install your own clean energy light bulb.    

Our elected officials and members of our Public Utility Commission can help make a healthier society by changing the way utilities are allowed to make their profit, tilting it more toward rewarding them for encouraging conservation rather than rewarding them for making a mess.

As I look around, I see a lot of scary things going on in the world, from beheadings to invasions to riots and plagues. It offers some comfort to know that the opportunity exists in our own homes to take on both national healthcare issues and climate change. This is not a "liberal" or "conservative" issue - we can individually save money by personal responsible action that lowers our utility bills while improving public health and slowing climate change.

I hope you will join me and others in doing that.


[1] http://www.eia.gov/coal/

[2]lean Air Task Force, “The Toll from Coal,” September 2010, http://www.catf.us/resources/publications/fi les/The_Toll_From-Coal

[3] http://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=99&t=3

[4] http://www.designrecycleinc.com/led%20comp%20chart.html

[5] http://energy.gov/articles/history-light-bulb

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