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Energy Efficiency: Then and Now

Published April 19, 2017

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Energy efficiency has undergone a significant evolution in recent decades. Despite nationwide growth in home size, miles driven and innovation of energy-consuming devices, demand for energy has actually decreased over the past decades. According to Bloomberg’s 2017 Sustainable Energy in America Factbook, energy consumption fell by by 0.2 percent last year, while GDP grew by 1.6 percent. This is achieved through energy efficiency and clean energy deployments. Advances in clean energy technologies are what drive our future sustainable practices, and they just keep getting better and better. This Earth Day, we’re taking a look at four revolutionary innovations that have made a positive lasting impact on society and planet Earth, and how these innovations have changed over time.

The lightbulb to LED

When Thomas Edison first invented the lightbulb, he changed the world. The bulb itself, however, was extremely inefficient. It lost around 90 percent of the energy it used to outputting heat as a byproduct. One hundred and forty years later, LEDs have turned that statistic completely on its head. Now, 95 percent of the energy used by an LED bulb is converted into light, and only 5 percent is lost to heat. And because LEDs use less energy overall, they create less of a demand on the grid, and are thus responsible for far fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

Grids go micro

In their white paper, Lower Spending, Higher Returns, Peter Kind of Energy Infrastructure Advocates and Doug Lewin of CLEAResult, discuss the construction of the infrastructure that gave rise to the electrical grid as we know it, and the near-ubiquitous availability of electricity in America. This availability improved the lives of countless people, and made many of the innovations we see today possible.

Lately, we’ve seen evidence of a slow transition from the traditional, centralized power grid toward microgrids. Microgrids are local power grids that can function independently. A microgrid can also act as a back-up generator and storage system for the traditional grid. Additonally, microgrids can run on 100 percent renewable energy.

Turning sunlight into electricity

The first silicon solar cell, built by Bell Laboratories in 1954, achieved an energy conversion rate of just 1 to 2 percent. And it came at a cost of $300 for a one watt solar cell, far too expensive for mass adoption. It wasn’t until the 1970s, when Exxon financed research that drove the price down from $100 to $20 per watt. These days we see solar prices as low as $2.85 per watt.

Because there’s an effectively unlimited amount of solar energy, we can classify it as a renewable energy source. And with solar prices steadily declining while the technology improves, it becomes more and more accessible.

The evolution of demand response

In one form or another, utility companies have used demand response, or DR, as a solution to avoid interruptions of service for decades. DR programs provide incentives for utility customers to reduce energy usage during peak hours. Historically, utilities have looked toward large energy users in the commercial and industrial sector to participate in these programs. Doing so can dramatically reduce strain on the grid during peak times.

The movement towards the Internet of Things has now made it easier for residential utility customers to participate in demand response programs. Users look to interconnected home devices like smart thermostats and advanced lighting controls to adjust themselves according to time of day and our presence. They can be used by utilities for DR purposes as well. For example, participating customers can agree to have their smart thermostats overridden by the utility during times of peak demand. Innovations in DR benefit customers, utilities and, ultimately, the planet.

In recent years, our society has seen significant changes to our evolving grid and the technologies that surround it. This Earth Day, let’s be mindful of how our energy use impacts our planet as we plan for the future.

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