Thinking of a green energy project? Expert urges conservation first

University Park, Pa. -- Before embarking on a renewable-energy project, such as installing a wind machine or solar panels, consider the Energy Pyramid, urges an energy expert in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.
Considerable enthusiasm has developed for using renewable energy resources, both to reduce expenses associated with traditional sources and to improve environmental conditions for ourselves and for future generations, noted Dennis Buffington, professor of agricultural and biological engineering. But conserving energy, he contended, is every bit as important as generating new energy.
"No one would ever consider building a pyramid with the peak first," he said. "Rather, a pyramid is built with the base first and then progressive layers are added until we finally get to the peak. Likewise, no one should install a renewable energy project without first implementing programs for energy conservation, energy efficiency and energy demand at the site -- whether it is a home, business, farm, industry or public facility."
Buffington explained the pyramid's layers this way:
--Energy Conservation. Conservation is based largely on behavioral practices to use energy in a more efficient manner. Such practices include turning off lights when not needed, setting thermostats to lower settings in the winter and higher settings in the summer, keeping engines and machinery properly maintained for efficient operation, cleaning the blades of ventilation fans on a frequent basis to remove accumulated dust, and replacing air filters on heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems on a monthly or bi-monthly basis.
"Generally, energy conservation behavioral changes can be made for little or no expense," he said. "But it is essential to have the cooperation of all people involved with the organization or enterprise for energy conservation to be successful."
--Energy Efficiency. This involves purchasing and installing equipment and processes with high energy efficiency. Examples of energy efficiency include using compact fluorescent lamps rather than incandescent lamps, electric motors with premium efficiency rather than standard efficiency, and double-pane insulated windows rather than single-pane windows.
"There are numerous opportunities in nearly all operations for increasing the energy efficiency for the various forms of energy that are being consumed," said Buffington. "It is essential that increasing energy efficiency yields cost savings as well. Before any purchases are made, one needs to evaluate whether the increased cost for the purchase is cost-effective over the life of the equipment.
"There is probably no way that a person could justify paying a premium price for an efficient motor that will be used for only 15 minutes a week for 36 weeks per year. But on the other hand, if a motor is going to be used 12 hours per day, 365 days per year, then investing in a high or premium efficiency motor is a no-brainer."
Whenever shopping for appliances and equipment, Buffington recommends looking for the Energy Star. The Energy Star label is on a wide array of major appliances, office equipment, lighting, electronics, heating and cooling equipment, windows, motors, pumps, and numerous other items. Products that earn the Energy Star label must meet strict criteria, such as lower energy consumption than standard products without sacrificing features, style or comfort.
"While it is true that many Energy Star products cost more initially than the standard items, the value of the energy saved over the life of the product must exceed the extra initial cost of the Energy Star product," he said. "In other words, the product with an Energy Star label must be cost-effective as well as energy efficient."
--Energy Demand. This entails shifting energy usage when possible to periods with less demand on the energy distribution system. Energy-demand considerations are most applicable to electricity and natural gas, Buffington noted. "For an electricity system, the challenge is to shift many of the energy-intensive operations to the time periods when off-peak rates are applicable," he said. "For electricity customers on real-time pricing, the challenge is to shift major loads to periods when the price of electricity is typically low."
As an example, Buffington cited a large dairy farm operator who has been able to reduce his electricity bill by $1,000 per month by transitioning his milking times so that one of the milkings each day is during the off-peak period. In this case, the dairy farmer is not using fewer kilowatt hours of electricity, but he is saving a considerable amount of money by managing his energy demand.
"Another aspect of energy demand is ensuring that your 'energy hogs' (your big users of energy) are not operating at the same time to create a high peak demand," he said. "The solution is to stagger as much as possible the large energy users to reduce the peak demand for the billing period."
--Renewable Energy. This is the peak of the pyramid, Buffington pointed out, and thus is the last part of the pyramid to be built. Renewable-energy technologies should be installed only after measures for energy conservation, energy efficiency and demand management have been fully implemented. "A study has shown that $1 spent on these three components can yield a savings of $3 when renewable energy technologies are installed," he said.
"Think about it. Why install solar panels for an enterprise that is not already using energy in an efficient manner? If the system is first modified to use energy in a more effective manner, then fewer solar panels will be needed."
Although energy analysis is not included as one of the building blocks for the pyramid, energy analysis is a necessary component at each level of the energy pyramid, according to Buffington.
"When the energy pyramid is built with energy conservation as the base, followed by energy efficiency and energy demand -- and capped off with renewable energy -- then we will be saving energy, saving money, decreasing dependency on imported energy, and improving the environment for this generation and following generations. That's a winning combination."
Last Updated November 18, 2010