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Efficiency is Key to Resolution of Energy Crisis

While many energy discussions focus on finding new sources of energy, a lot can be done to use the energy we have more efficiently, said speakers in an April Meeting session. In many cases, more efficient technology is already available and cost-effective.

Amory Lovins, an energy expert and founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, described several existing efficient technologies. We could save billions of dollars per year by investing in these technologies, he said. In fact, it would cost less to use efficient technology to save energy than to produce and deliver energy, he said. 

Vehicles use 70% of US oil, said Lovins. New advanced ultralight materials such as carbon fiber thermoplastic composites that are already available could lead to significantly more efficient automobiles. If manufacturers built cars out of such materials, said Lovins, you could have an ultra-light hybrid SUV that gets 67 miles per gallon. The car would be as big, comfortable, and safe as today’s SUVs. Such a car would not cost much more to produce, and would pay for itself in saved oil in less than two years, he said. “Think of this as finding a Saudi Arabia under Detroit,” said Lovins in a press conference at the April Meeting. 

A similar revolution is going on in electricity generation, he said.  Clean, small, “micropower” plants were already generating a sixth of the world’s electricity in 2005, and are set to provide an even greater proportion of our electricity supply. “The revolution already happened, sorry if you missed it,” said Lovins. These small, low-carbon decentralized generating plants involve less financial risk than large central thermal power stations, and can be financed mainly by private investment.

Another speaker in the session, Leon Glicksman of MIT, said that more efficient buildings could save significant amounts of energy. Buildings use almost 40% of the country’s energy, and about two-thirds of the electricity. In fact, given how much energy is used indoors, buildings probably have more of an impact than transportation, said Glicksman.

Many discussions about energy issues focus on the supply side, but we need to have a more balanced approach, devoting more effort to saving energy and using it efficiently, he said.

Glicksman has worked on ways to design buildings that are more efficient. Buildings usually last a long time and are difficult to retrofit, so it’s important to build them efficiently, he said.

Design techniques already exist to save a lot of energy, he said. For instance, buildings with natural ventilation use about half as much energy. Houses can be designed so that they don’t need central heating systems, even in cold climates. And scientists have developed a design that collects sunlight and transmits it farther into a room, lighting up areas that would otherwise be dark without electric lights, resulting in significant electricity savings, Glicksman said.

From an economic standpoint, it makes sense to build efficient buildings, he said. But builders don’t have an incentive to do so because they don’t pay the energy bills, and consumers don’t know enough about energy efficiency.

Glicksman said that architects have to be trained to design more efficient structures. To help them, he and colleagues have developed a computer program that simulates the heating, lighting, and cooling requirements for a given building design.

In addition to building new structures that are more energy efficient, sometimes simple fixes can save a lot of energy in existing buildings, said Glicksman. For instance, they found that at MIT about half of the fume hoods in the chemistry building were being left open at night, which wasted a lot of energy.

Energy efficient buildings and other ways of saving energy are available, Glicksman said. “It’s really a question of getting people to use these things.”

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff