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Science: Energy Efficiency to Curb Climate Change

Doug Struck
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 22, 2008 1:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer Doug Struck will be online Tuesday, Jan. 22 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the potential for technology to make a difference in slowing climate change.

This discussion is part of the monthly series:In the Greenhouse: Confronting a Changing Climate

A transcript follows.

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Doug Struck: Good Afternoon, and greetings from Boston, where there is still snow on the ground despite recent rains, and furnaces are fired up. If you are fired up about the issue, join in.

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Fairfax, Va.: A lot of people complain that compact fluorescent bulbs take a long time to warm up and don't last as long as advertised. I would be much more confident in purchasing these if I knew the bulb would last as long as is claimed and wouldn't take several minutes to reach full brightness. Has there been any discussion of mandating product testing or replacement guarantees for these bulbs?

Doug Struck: I'm surprised to hear those complaints, which I had not heard before. I have them in my house, and don't notice that problem. They seem to be gaining widespread acceptance, and new models are coming out frequently. A recent blind test discounted the complaints that the light wasn't bright enough-- the survey found people preferred the new bulbs.

Why don't you buy one and try it? By the way, check on your utility bill to see if there is a rebate program for the bulbs. My local utility rebates almost the full cost of the bulb when one sends in the receipt and product code.

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Washington, D.C.: How much electricity can be saved if I turn off the extension cords where I plug my computer, printer, TV, VCR, DVD player, phone, lights, etc. when I am not using them? Thanks.

Doug Struck:100 percent. That's the best solution. Plug your appliances into a multi-outlet (get a good one with a fuse and a switch and don't overload it). Then just flick off the switch. Of course, the clocks on our appliances may complain if they are not internally battery powered.

But who reads those dim appliance clocks anyhow?

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Ridley Park, Pa.: Mr. Struck, I believe for any positive movement forward in the fight against global warming will be a U.S. president who will lead with action not words. Which of the candidates do you feel has the best plan and potential to lead us in the preservation of the enviornment we will leave to our children and grandchildren.

Kindest personal regards,

George R Neely

Doug Struck: Nice try. It's a fair question ... for the candidates. Not for a reporter.

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Arlington, Va.: Greenpeace in 2007 commissioned experts at DLA (Germany's NASA) to analyze if energy efficiency and renewable energy can globally cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50%, and the American Solar Energy Society (www.ases.org) asked the National Renewable Energy Laboratory scientists to do a similar analysis in 2007 just for the US - and they both concluded it was possible with today's technology -- but U.S. policy doesn't embrace this scenario. Do you?

Doug Struck: The figures, whether 30 percent or 50 percent or more, are estimates that only guess at the giant variables of how people everywhere will react, so coming up with a number is tough.

But as my story pointed out, the possibilities for savings using technology and techniques that we already know are huge.

But here's the catch: we can't wave a magic wand to install all of those technologies overnight. Are you ready to throw away all of your old appliances, your older car, and trade in your house for more energy efficient models? Of course not, at least right away.

The question is how quickly consumers, policymakers, businessmen and industry managers can be encouraged, persuaded or required to adopt the new technology. Pessimists say it will cost too much and take too long; optimists (including a growing number of top economists) say the opportunities for savings will create a huge and promising new economy, which will bring action sooner rather than later.

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Sacramento, Calif.: If the costs of efficient technology are difficult to absorb in new buildings, how in the world can they be viewed as viable for retrofitting the hundreds of thousands of existing, inefficient buildings?

Doug Struck: The numbers are getting closer to adding up. As the cost of energy zooms upward, the costs of reforming our buildings begin to make more and more sense.

The costs of efficient technology are difficult to absorb in new buildings only if the builder is not the one paying the fuel bills. If you are a homeowner or building owner who expects to be paying the electric bills for 10, 15 or 20 years, you would find that adopting a lot of those efficiencies in the construction and design phase will save you money.

Retrofitting, too, can become attractive as the equations change. Those equations can be changed by the markets, or by governments. Rising oil, gas and coal costs make saving on energy bills more attractive. As consumer demand for energy-saving technologies increases, mass production decreases the costs of those technologies you might use to retrofit. Governments can create tax credits, subsidies, and credits to encourage retrofitting and alternative power, and pass laws to require movement in that direction.

And that doesn't even include the advantages of doing it to help reduce global warming.

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Washington, D.C.: Why isn't the industrialized world doing engineered barriers like India is to protect against rising seas?

Doug Struck: New Orleans comes to mind.

Dikes, dams, reservoirs, canals, sea barriers... all of these are hugely expensive, do alter the environment, require maintenance, and in the long run may not hold back nature. The industrialized world has done lots of this massive engineering. California has reworked its natural waterways. Look at the Colorado river.

But nothing holds back the rising waters forever.

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Warrenton, Va.: Can't help but wonder why the Bush administration has not given adequate tax credits for geothermal heat pumps/groundsource. Both the Energy Department and EPA claim that ground source energy is the most effective and clean energy,yet there is nothing to help the prospective buyer with the high costs. I was just quoted a price on a geothermal heating system for my home. The price came in at over $25,000 more. Mr. Bush's $300 tax credit doesn't go far and it limits other energy saving projects I may want to undertake. There was a $2000 rebate which was never funded.

I see highly questionable projects getting large tax incentives. Ethanol is now staring to produce less than anticipted results. Geothermal/ground source has been around for many years and it has proven its reliability.

We need to put the money where there have been results.

Doug Struck: I agree. It is true that some of these technologies haven't gotten the long-term tests to prove their effectiveness. But oil, gas and coal companies have been profiting on government tax breaks and subsidies long enough. The objection to alternative energies-- that they cost more than "traditional" energies-- could be offset by adjusting the government policies and redirecting tax credits and subsidies to where they are needed.

Mistakes might be made-- Ethanol is not one of them. But corrections can and should be made.

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Chantilly, Va.: After reading this insightful article and doing the math, the 800 million pounds (or 400,000 tons) of reduced carbon emissions will amount to less than 1 percent of the U.S. yearly emissions of 6 billion tons. I also noted the Oak Ridge expert comment that the potential may be as much as 30 to 40 percent reduction.

Energy efficient technologies are a good step forward to reducing todays emissions, but that alone will not be sufficient to stop the growing emissions which are exponentially increasing due to high economical & industrial growth worldwide.

I would like you to discuss what are the absolute reduction approaches.

Sincerely,

Neil Walia

Doug Struck: Thanks for the math. It seems discouraging, but that 1 percent you have calculated is just from this one technology alone-- just from changing the power supplies during the manufacture of consumer electronics. Think of all the other measures that can be used.

Princeton economist Robert Socolow created a model called "wedges" in which he demonstrated that adopting a wide variety of technologies and energy saving measures eventually add up to a solution. He even created a bit of a game with it. Google him and wedges.

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Freising, Germany: I have mixed feelings regarding your article. On one hand, it's absolutely true that it's far cheaper to make something more efficient than to develop anything new and groundbreaking. But on the other hand, mankind is going to need something groundbreaking to solve this problem.

I'm concerned that those who are fixated with the idea making things more efficient will delay more costly efforts to solve the problem. Don't you think that there could be budget bottlenecks that would promote low cost bandage projects over larger, potentially more effective but more costly efforts?

Doug Struck: I tried to point out in the article that energy efficiencies are not going to solve the problem by themselves. But most of the analysis says they are the cheapest first steps that offer the greatest energy advantages. So the uncomfortable answer is that we need to do both: take the easier first steps at the same time we are looking for long term fixes.

But I don't share your view that mankind will be saved by "something groundbreaking." I think it will be a progression of lots of small steps, some of them groundbreaking and some of them just embracing things we already know.

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Melbourne, Fla.: What would the approximate projected energy savings and potential greenhouse gas reductions be from using existing, established technologies (such as high-R-rated insulation, double glazing and low-E window coatings)in all new construction? How much additional could be gained by retrofitting existing buildings? Would the additional cost of materials and construction be offset in energy savings over the life of the buildings?

Doug Struck: Buildings account for about 44 percent of our nation's energy use. All of the questions you pose depend on individual assumptions: where is the building being built, how much does electricity cost there and how much does one estimate it will cost, how can the building be designed and located to benefit from passive solar, what is the building's use and how much energy is used, etc., etc.

That analysis can be done. You can, for example, find a percentage increase in efficiency from the high-R-rated insulation, and apply that percentage to your analysis. It's not easy work, and depends a lot on the future cost of energy. But the bottom line is it increasingly makes sense to build as energy-efficiently as possible.

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Reston, Va.: What is the maximum percentage of American energy demand that could be met by solar and wind energy sources?

Doug Struck: Depends on how many are built. Granted, the numbers are large. Right now those two sources provide a small fraction of the nation's energy. But other countries-- Germany comes to mind-- have shown that a strident government policy can dramatically increase the numbers of wind farms, for example, and significantly increase the percentage of power provided by that source.

Most analysts would argue that with a still-rising demand for energy in America, we will use ALL the sources of energy that can be produced. The imperatives of climate change suggest we change the mix toward non-GreenhouseGas-polluting sources as soon as we can.

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Doug Struck: Whoops. In answering a question from Warrenton, Va., about government incentives, I mistyped. I meant to say Ethanol IS one of the mistakes that should be corrected, as governments in Europe are just now starting to do. Despite the hoopla for Ethanol fuel, the total energy required to make it often does not provide much relief to the environment. And the craze for corn-based Ethanol is proving to be a huge burden for the poor in higher food costs, and in some cases injurious to the environment. Other bio-fuels are more advantageous, but the search for alternative fuels is going to involve some missteps on the way.

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Washington, D.C.: From what I understand about making "Green" products, it's all about balance. So while it make make sense to use a recycled product to create a new one - if that product has to travel over seas and use a lot of inefficient transportation to get there - then it may not be worth it to use the recycled good. Do you think this bodes true for technological improvements to our everyday appliances and gadgets?

Doug Struck: You are right that we really need to consider the total product energy costs, from start to finish. (See my previous note about Ethanol). The practice of doing those product-trail energy audits is a fledgling industry, and still involves some vagaries (how do you measure the energy "savings" of child labor making a product in a poor country versus electricity production, for example). But we need to do more of that to help figure out what really is a help in reducing energy and greenhouse gas emissions globally, and what is a mirage. Mistakes will be made (see Ethanol again), and it may upset some convenient notions about some of our recyling, usage and production assumptions. But we will solve this challenge only by learning from our mistakes.

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Katy, Tex.: Did the DLA and Solar Studies include shutting down the coal driven energy sources and replacing them with renewables? If so how is that going to be paid for, both the obsolencense and the new sources (which are more expensive to build per KW to begin with). Plus China will never take orders from us to shut down their coal power plants and the economics behind that decision would decimate the US. Will consumers not turn on the environmentalists when they see their costs rising vastly and not making a global impact due to "renegade" states?

Doug Struck: The rapidly developing world, especially China and India, are indeed the elephant in the room when we talk about global greenhouse gas emission reductions. Pessimists say why bother doing anything to save energy because it will pale beside their growing GHG emissions. Optimists take a different view: America and the developed world can lead (and even profit) by creating technology that will be cheaper, less polluting and more energy efficient. That technology will be embraced by-- and should be shared with-- developing countries. China, while still building an alarming number of coal-fired plants, is taking other steps in the right direction. The Chinese are not unaware of the crisis.

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Vienna, Va.: Mr. Struck: At the risk of being redundant, I would like to echo the complaints of your first poster - my anecdotal experience with compact fluorescent bulbs confirms his/her concern with the time it takes for the bulbs to attain full brightness. Plus, I had a newly installed bulb shatter while in use. That was when I discovered that disposal is an issue because the bulbs contain a small amount of mercury. The package had an ambiguous warning - manage in accordance with disposal laws".

Doug Struck: Interesting. The technology may not be perfected yet.

As to the disposal, the mercury does need to be handled with care, and public education on that is lacking. The counter-argument about mercury is that production of enough electricity to light an incandescent bulb for so many years produces even more mercury at power plants, which is emitted into the environment.

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Washington, D.C.: I am so interested in this issue that I've decided to make a career out of it. Where do you think I should focus my career-changing energy in order to have the most impact on climate change (and the highest likelihood of finding a job)? I have a background in business, but I am willing to go back to school. Thank you.

Doug Struck: Good question-- wish I knew the answer. I do think there will be lots of good opportunities, however. The need to change our carbon-fueled society is going to create a huge new economy in the coming decades. Personally, I think it will be an exciting economy, one that will create a more livable world, even-out some of the crazy economic imbalances created by our thirst for oil, provide a means for poorer countries to improve their standards of living, and make the whole place more breathable and tolerable for us and other living beings. Seems to me the sky is the limit-- forgive the pun-- for an ambitious and enthusiastic person in that future.

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Doug Struck: On that optimistic note, I will sign off. Thanks for joining in, now and in the past.

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