• by Dick Henry and Douglas Foy
  • 12

The cheapest, cleanest energy available is the energy you don't have to use: it's always available, it never varies in price, and it doesn't add to global warming. (ReillyButler/flickr)


Energy efficiency used to mean keeping the thermostat below 68 degrees or putting on a sweater.

No longer.

A generation of study and technological advances have transformed the field — making huge economic and environmental savings possible.

In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Obama challenged the nation “to cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next 20 years.”

Is it even possible? And could the widespread use of energy efficient technologies stem the rising tide of climate change?

Energy and environmental experts Dick Henry and Douglas Foy offer their insights.

Dick_Henry edit

A former consultant to Public Service of New Hampshire, and former president of the New Hampshire Audubon Society, D. Dickinson “Dick” Henry, Jr. is executive director of the Jordan Institute. The mission of the Jordan Institute is to help communities enhance the health of people and the environment in ways that make economic sense.

More than two-thirds of electric energy in the U.S. is wasted before it ever lights a bulb, or powers an appliance. And 50 to 80 percent of energy used to heat and cool buildings — homes, offices, factories, warehouses and store — is wasted, warming the surrounding atmosphere.

We don’t have a global energy supply problem. We have a massive energy waste problem.

At the Jordan Institute, where I work, we focus on energy conservation in buildings. Why? About 48 percent of the country’s energy — electric and thermal — is expended in buildings. Consider that percentage against the roughly 300 billion-square-feet of building stock currently in the U.S. Needless to say, that’s a lot of waste.

At the rate we’re going, it’s only going to get worse.

By 2035, it’s projected that we’ll demolish about 50 billion-square-feet of that, remodel another 15- billion-square-feet, and build an additional 150 billion-square-feet of new construction.

We don’t have a global energy supply problem. We have a massive energy waste problem.

Do the math: over the next several decades, we’ll have the opportunity impact the energy usage patterns for over 75 percent of all buildings in the country.

We recently worked to improve the energy efficiency of a historic 19th century building in New Hampshire. We began by considering the building as a whole and what it will take to make all its occupants — in this case shoppers, retailers, office workers and apartment residents on the upper floors — comfortable year-round. Then we “air sealed the envelope.” In other words, we insulated the attic, the basement and the exterior walls, drastically reducing heat loss in the winter.

Next we looked for better ways to use energy. We replaced the old steam heat system with hot water. We installed smaller boilers and high efficiency pumps. And we replaced the building’s one thermostat, with 40 new ones – giving each apartment or leased space its own control.

By focusing on renewable energy sources that would provide a good return on investment, we also added biomass (wood pellet) boilers, a solar thermal system for domestic hot water, and photovoltaics. This building’s annual energy costs dropped from $65,000 to $8,000 — paying off the cost of the project in less than 10 years.

Similar changes could be made — and thus the similar savings could be achieved — in most older buildings.

The potential reduction in carbon emissions from energy efficiency exceeds the potential reduction from all renewable energy sources — solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, biofuels, photovoltaics — combined.

New sources of energy supply typically cost anywhere from $0.08 to 0.16 per kilowatt-hour. New sources of energy efficiency (i.e. reducing demand) cost between $.005 to .02 per kilowatt-hour.

The cheapest, cleanest energy available is the energy you don’t have to use: it’s always available, it never varies in price, and it doesn’t add to global warming.

But switching from fuel (coal, oil, natural gas) to renewable sources of energy (wind, solar, geothermal) isn’t a panacea.

We must first reduce demand by solving our energy waste problem, and then switch to renewable sources of energy when and as appropriate.

Douglas Foy

Douglas Foy is president of Serrafix Corp. and former president of the Conservation Law Foundation. As a super-secretary in Governor Mitt Romney’s cabinet, Doug oversaw transportation, housing, environment, and energy agencies, with combined annual capital budgets of $5 billion.

After the OPEC oil embargo of the 1970s, Sweden made a national security decision to reduce its dependence on imported oil. Amid growing awareness about the hazards of greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels, and with the rising price of oil in recent years, the country has redoubled its efforts.

A major factor in Sweden’s reduced dependence on oil and other fossil fuels is the construction of district heating systems. Take for example the small city of Kristianstad.

In 1980, Kristianstad depended almost entirely on oil and other fossil fuels to heat its buildings. Today, the city relies almost entirely on an efficient biofuel-powered district heating system that generates heat and electricity for all its residents.

(Wikimedia commons)

Kristianstad, Sweden (Wikimedia commons)

Here’s how it works: The system combines industrial waste heat with a wood-chip fueled, combined heat-and-power (CHP) plant. Energy is used to heat water which is then carried via a loop system of insulated pipes. The pipes connect every residential, commercial and industrial building in the service area — up to 35 miles. Inside each building are two exchangers — one for space heating, one for hot water – that transfer heat from the power system into the building, and then return excess heat back to the power system. In most cases, exchangers are contained inside a small wall-mounted box – erasing the need for the bulky, space-consuming furnaces and hot water heaters we see in most American homes. In the end, it costs about one-third the price of oil.

Well-executed district heating systems — like the one I’ve described in Kristianstad, Sweden — can reduce energy costs, slash greenhouse gas emissions, and virtually eliminate a region’s dependence on imported fuel oil.

District heating systems also strengthen local economies. In the formation of a local energy industry, jobs are created and money stays in communities that would otherwise be going out.

One complication for any heating system is building enough reserve capacity to use during for the 10 coldest and hottest days of the year. As innovators look for a long-term solution, homes that already have a furnace and a hot water heater are covered.

In addition to reducing the costs associated with building, maintaining and operating the power sources required to generate energy on high demand days, homeowners and landlords could make money from the district energy company by selling their own excess heating capacity back into the system.


Tags: Architecture, Climate change, Environment, Innovation

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • Jasoturner

    Most people don’t realize that a typical fossil fuel power plant is only about 33% efficient. In other words, 1 kilowatt-hour delivered to your house requires 3 kilowatt-hours worth of fuel at the power plant. Where do the extra 2 kilowatt-hours go? Up the stack as “waste” heat.

    If that heat can be captured, as Foy mentions, overall thermal efficiency can be more than doubled. A good local example of such “co-generation” is the MATEP power plant in the Longwood Medical Area. The MATEP plant routes the exhaust from their combustion turbines through a heat recovery boiler, which generates steam. This steam is then run through a steam turbine (to generate additional electricity) and then the steam is extracted at about 130 psi and delivered to the LMA hospitals for heating and sterilization use.

    Note that if you consider the general inefficiency of fossil fuel plants, conservation’s value becomes more obvious, since saving one kWh at home actually saves three kWh of fuel at the plant. In light of this, conservation is superior to co-generation as a means of reducing our dependence on fossil fuel.

    One final observation. Biomass, which often means wood, is more renewable in theory than in practice. Simply because the rate of tree growth can never compare with the rate of combustion when using it for fuel. In the same vein, one could argue that fossil fuel is “renewable”. It just take a few eons for it to renew. I am not a big fan of biomass.

  • Vandermeer

    Fascinating… let’s spread this message. I am all in favor of conservation. How do we get those who spend energy on big homes, cars, SUVs and heating and cooling to care.

    • Jasoturner

      This is a good question. There are oodles of conservation advocates, but nothing has really captured the imagination of the typical homeowner.

    • X-Ray

      Conservation and energy efficiency are not the same. They are different schemes but complementary.

  • BostonBased

    The caption on the Kristianstad street photo says “Wikimedia Commons” as though that implies public domain. I searched for this photo and it happens to be “public domain” but not all Commons content is. I think it would be better to give a link to the source so it is easy to check the copyright status.

  • Futo Buddy

    making things more efficent just allows you to use more of them it does not really cut down on energy consumption in the long run. for example it may be more efficient to drive an old truck than to buy a new prius because it takes a lot of energy to build and ship the new prius when that energy has already been “spent” so so speak with the old truck. In that example there are alot of variables that could make it go either way but making things more efficeint does not often mean a savings of energy in the long term and aggragate. the fuel efficiency of cars has not gotten much better over the last 20 years because they have been made heavier with all the new safety gear but that was possible due to increases in effeincy of the moters so efficiency is a double edged sword

  • Clay_Nesler

    One area that will have a significant impact is energy efficiency in buildings since they consume 40 percent of the country’s energy. The track record shows that energy use in buildings can be reduced on average by 25 percent. This creates savings for U.S. businesses while using local labor to generate the cost reductions. In the U.S, there are 72 billion square feet of commercial real estate and most of it is not energy efficient. The potential to improve is significant.

  • Sid Abma

    Jasoturner. The technology of Condensing Flue Gas Heat Recovery is designed to recover almost all of the heat energy from these waste exhaust gases, so that this energy can be used inside the building or facility.
    The exhaust temperature of a waste heat boiler is still between 300 F to 400 F. That is still a lot of hot energy.
    Natural gas can be consumed to near 100% energy efficiency. It can be consumed so efficiently that Cool exhaust is then vented into the atmosphere, and the Water is recovered from this combusted natural gas. This distilled water is very usable.

    Imagine power plants with no chimneys. The heat would be recovered and utilized to say heat algae ponds, and this algae would be used to produce bio fuels and other products. The cooled exhaust would be put into these algae ponds as enrichment (fertilizer) and the algae gives back oxygen. The created water would be used to make up for evaporation.

    How many full time jobs would this create? How many locations could be set up across the country?
    What could this do for our economy?
    What could this do for our environment?

    • Futo Buddy

      500 inch tvs for everyone!

  • gmyck

    I agree with Clay_Nesler. The existing Commercial Real Estate building stock in the U.S. represents the single largest area of opportunity for energy efficiency projects and thereby reducing our consumption, GHG emissions and dependence on fossil fuels. Exisitng buildings represents 90% of the deep retrofit market. So why hasn’t more been done to improve energy efficiency in Commercial Real Estate? The split incentive issue that’s only been lightly mentioned. If a landlord offers a full service lease to a tenant, any energy savings achieved goes in the landlords pocket . The savings also increases the asset’s value. For example, if a landlord can increase the Net Operating Income by $100K (based on a Cap Rate of 7%), then they have increased the asset’s value by $1.43 Million dollars (yes, you read that right). However, If the landlord passes the energy costs on to the tenant thru, say, a triple-net lease structure, then the landlord sees no savings or enhanced asset value. Thus, no incentive. If you feel $100K is too ambitious, use whatever $$$ amount you wish and divide it by any cap rate % you wish – $25K/.07 = $357K in increased asset value. BTW, these are CRE Industry numbers, not mine. Existing Incentives, financing options, mandates and tax benefits at the local, state and federal levels need to be enhanced to compel CRE owners to make those investments in energy efficiency. While not solving the whole problem, it can help.

  • NotsamWalton

    I live in a new building in jamaica plain that was built with a modern heating plant with more than 4 times the capacity needed by the building! Is there an entripenuer somewhere who can manage using our boiler room as the center of a district heating system which contains the rest of the residents on our block?

    • X-Ray

      Just because the boiler has excess capacity does not indicate significent inefficiency; the boiler just runs less frequently.