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Hearts and Minds

23 Nov
potencial of renewables

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A few weeks ago I blogged about the “efficiency vs. renewables” dictum — that is, the commonly held wisdom that, practically speaking energy efficiency comes first, renewables second. Whether you’re a homeowner, business owner, or government, investing in renewables only makes sense if you’ve first done everything possible to use energy derived from all sources–fossil and renewable–more efficiently.

In that post I mentioned that my friend Alex Jarvis, a solar installer in Bloomington, IN, challenged that logic, claiming that in his experience, investing in renewables can often act as a catalyst to greater energy efficiency. To see what other energy experts thought, I recently spoke with Penni Mclean-Conner, vice president of customer care for NSTAR–a Massachusetts-based gas and electric utility–and author of Energy Efficiency: Principles and Practices.

It’s crucial, she said, that state and local governments push energy efficiency-based plans to reduce out carbon footprint. “But I don’t think that at all precludes the rapid development of renewable technologies or should discourage customers from investing in both efficiency and alternative energy technologies simultaneously,” she said. “I’m excited by whatever motivates customers.”

I think that’s an important point. One of the central challenges in dealing with climate change, energy security, and pollution is getting people to care enough about these issues to actually do something about them. Yes, it’s an unassailable fact that energy efficiency is, well, the most efficient and economical means of using energy wisely. (It’s no surprise, after all, that the ongoing Empire State Building sustainable retrofit involves replacing most of the existing windows with more energy efficient windows but does not include solar panels or rooftop-mounted wind turbines.) [link:

But motivation matters, too. The global effort to change the way we make and consume energy is in large part a struggle for hearts and minds. Because, for all sorts of reasons, the inconvenient truths of climate change, rising energy prices, and dwindling stores of easily accessible fossil fuels are not necessarily self-evident. Unless you’re already a committed environmentalist, climate change activist, or renewable energy advocate, It’s easy to ignore or remain willfully ignorant of the facts because there are other, more immediately pressing things to worry about (like the global financial meltdown). So part of the task is making these facts evident, making visible the ways in which energy is made, the ways in which energy is consumed, and the ways in which energy matters.

Which is why, finally, I’m with McLean-Connor. Whatever motivates people to be conscious of energy, whether it’s the common-sense logic and economic propriety of energy efficiency or the razzle-dazzle of exciting renewable energy technologies–both matter. We need to think beyond the rigid hierarchy of “efficiency first, renewables second” and recognize how they work together as part of the new energy story.

You can check out more of my thoughts and writing about renewable energy and about my book-in-progress, Renewable, at



Efficiency First, Renewables Second … or Vice Versa?

19 Oct



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While working on my book on renewable energy over the past year, I’ve repeatedly come across the common argument that while renewables are all well and good, they make little sense without first doing everything we can to make homes, businesses, cars, etc. more energy-efficient. Only then, the reasoning goes, will the average consumer get the most value for their rooftop PV solar panels, or home geothermal system, a small wind turbine.

I see the logic, and I’m sure in many ways the efficiency-before-renewables argument is simply true. But there’s a flip side to that argument …

I put this argument to my friend Alex Jarvis, a solar installer based in Bloomington, Indiana (my home town). And while he agreed that cutting back on energy usage and improving efficiency are important, he wasn’t sold on the notion that efficiency should always come before investing in renewable technology. Sometimes, he said, based on his experience with clients who’ve ponied up for a rooftop solar system, taking the technology plunge spurs efficiency. in other words, pouring several thousands dollars into a solar array or geothermal system or whatever is great incentive to become more efficient in general energy use. In order to squeeze every last ounce of value out of the technology they’ve paid for, Alex said, his clients often become hyper aware of how much energy they use, how and when they use it, and what they can do to use less and consume energy more efficiently. And when they do, they see up close and personal how their solar panels on their roof are offsetting a larger percentage of their overall energy use.

Interesting point, no?

Now, Alex’s experience is limited. He’s just one guy. But I wonder if other solar installers and people who invest on renewables on small or large scales have found something similar. Is there in fact a case to be made for renewable energy technology spurring energy efficiency instead of the other way around?

I plan to look into this in greater depth. Meanwhile, I’m curious to know what you think.

Let me know …

Interview with Tony Malkin about Empire State Bldg Green Makeover

17 Aug

The other day I talked with Tony Malkin, owner of the Empire State Building, about his ongoing, comprehensive project to make ESB more energy efficient.

Normally I begin interviews by introducing myself, saying a few words about the book project, and then asking the interviewee if he or she has any questions for me, just as a courtesy.  Here’s how the exchange played out with Mr. Malkin:

Me: So before I leap in, do you have any questions for me?

Malkin: Hey dude, you’re the one writing the book, not me.

Me: I’ll take that as a ‘no.’

The point?  Mr. Malkin is a busy guy with lots going on and little time to spare.  Which is why I was grateful that he took time to speak with me for nearly a half hour.  He was extremely thoughtful and well spoken about his efforts to “green” the Empire State Building. If you’re not familiar with the project, check it out.

Among the many good points Mr. Malkin made, one stood out.  As many green energy people have noted, efficiency measures (i.e. finding ways to use less energy more efficiently) are often more effective and less costly than solar, wind, geothermal, and other ways of making renewable energy.  Yet while generous subsidies, grants, and tax breaks exist for renewable energy-creating technologies, there are none designed specifically for the development/real estate industry.  And there should be, according to Mr. Malkin.

Good point.  Buildings consume a huge amount of energy. Why wouldn’t the federal govt want to encourage homeowners and developers and real estate moguls like Mr. Malkin to spend money up front to make their properties more energy efficient?

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