A Conversation with Stanford’s Jim Sweeney: Part 2

Part 2: The Most Efficient Efficiency Measures

By Charles Shereda

In Part 1 of this two-part interview, Jim Sweeney and I discussed the need for more information for consumers to make better efficiency-related decisions.  In this second part, Jim, who directs Stanford’s Precourt Energy Efficiency Center, talks about where the largest gains for the least effort are to be had in consumer efficiency.  Jim is a Convening Director of the upcoming Behavior, Energy, and Climate Change Conference, which will be in Sacramento in November.

3P:  What are the largest impact or most economically attractive efficiency improvements that could and should be made in residences?

I think lighting is the simplest.  In residences the vast majority of the light bulbs are still incandescents.  Compact fluorescents are not perfect substitutes in some cases.  Their light quality might be different from that of incandescents, but they now are really good quality so that they’re roughly about the same size as lightbulbs, they’re similar light quality, and they now go on right away rather than taking a long time to heat up before they reach full intensity.  So moving first towards CFLs, and later, light-emitting diodes.

Second, as people replace air conditioning, they should look for the Energy Star label.  The Energy Star label says it uses energy efficiently, and it will be a better economic deal than the non-Energy Star one.

Another thing that ends up taking a lot of energy and can be quite variable is the television.  The difference in electricity use between say a plasma and an LED TV can be factors of several.  If it’s a large screen television, that can be a significant factor.  So, when you’re shopping for a television, pay attention to the technology and what you can see on the box about how much electricity it uses.

3P:  What about for the commercial sector?

In commercial buildings a little over half the energy use is consumed by [the combination of] lighting, space cooling, and space heating.  Of that amount, over half, or about 30% of the total, is lighting.  In the commercial buildings with a profit motive, they have already gone a long way toward getting the most efficient lighting.

Now, a lot of office buildings just have ceiling fluorescent lights that light up everything, whereas most people feel very comfortable with more light on their desktop where they’re working, and enough light so they can see and interact with people, but less light overhead.   So a more careful design of where you put light can [still] happen.

The other [component to be aware of] is the time dimension.  You still have some buildings where you can’t turn off the lights in individual offices and they stay on all night long.  Those are going away now, but where they still exist, that’s quite inefficient.  In most buildings, it makes sense to have light and occupancy sensors controlling the lights, so that if there’s nobody in the room, the lights go off, and when somebody comes in, the lights go on instantly.  If there’s a lot of daylight coming in from the external windows, the lights go off, even if there’s somebody in the room.  That’s not a rocket science solution, it’s basically a simple solution that people can do themselves.

In space cooling and heating, it’s simply an issue of making sure you have the modern variable-speed fans rather than just fixed speed fans, and that’s really an issue of engineering of the building, and when you retrofit, making certain you have those technologies that are economically sensible.

In new construction, you can make significant differences in the way you design, so that you bring natural lighting into the building, you have a well insulated building, you have windows that are at least double paned or others that reduce the flow of heat in and out of the building.

3P: What do you see as the best opportunities in transportation?

Although I tend to believe in more free market solutions, in the case of automobiles, I think the fuel efficiency standards have turned out to be an effective way of moving things forward. We’re going to see more and more fuel efficient vehicles, we’re going to see more hybrids coming in, and we’re going to see experimentation with plug-in hybrid vehicles, although they’re still a little too expensive for what you get.

But, we’re on the right road.  For a long while we were stalled.  We made really good progress way back in about 1975… many people forget that the average fuel economy of cars on the road was 12 mpg at that point.  Now the fuel economy is on the order of 20 mpg, and Obama will move it up to around 35.  What’s important to note is that the amount of fuel used is inversely proportional to the miles per gallon.  What that means is, going from a low to a mid-range mpg saves you a lot more gas than going from a mid-range to a high-range.  Here’s the example:  If you started with 12, and went to 24, you would cut your use of gas per mile in half.  If you go from 24 to nothing at all (it just breathes air), that’s the same reduction.  So we’ve moved from about 12 mpg to about 20 mpg from 1975 to about 1985.  And then it stalled; nothing changed from that time until very recently, when a couple years ago we had new legislation making more intense fuel efficiency standards, and then moving it upwards, so I’m very comfortable with where we’re going.  But I don’t see the additonal gains of moving from 35 to 40 or 50 [mpg], it’s relatively little reductions in fuel consumed when you make that change, relative to the big shifts that we’re doing right now.

Now in cities where we have lots of congestion, we’ve got to think about making the whole transportation system more viable for everybody so that you relieve congestion on the roads for those who want to be driving themselves, and make more convenient a much more integrated system of buses, subways, and other transportation.

Then airlines… there’s a tremendous financial motive for the airlines to get fuel efficient airplanes, and for Boeing and Airbus and others to design fuel efficient airplanes, so there the market forces are working just like they’re supposed to.

3P:  One last quick question.  In an earlier discussion you mentioned that the McKinsey Efficiency Supply Curve (link) would have looked the same 20 years ago as it does today.  So if it would save money to do these things, why aren’t they being done?

That’s exactly what we were talking about at the beginning.  There’s all these, what I’ll call, behavioral and market barriers that get in the way.  What I haven’t talked about are the more conventional market barriers.  For example, if you look at the difference between rental homes in California and owner-occupied homes, you see a big difference between energy efficiency in them.  You know, it’s a no-brainer to insulate your attic.  The few years ago when this survey was done, in owner-occupied homes, something like 85% of the attics were insulated.  In homes that are rented, a little less than 40% had insulated attics.  Similarly for double-paned windows and good wall insulation and so forth.  And it’s because the renter pays the utility bill and the owner pays the capital costs.  You could say, well, when you rent it, that should make a difference in the rental price… but realistically, when someone’s going to rent a house, how many people go and inspect the attics before they decide to do it?  So that’s a market failure.  A group of market failures and a group of these behavioral issues have gotten in the way.  My contention is, that the McKinsey curve, while I think the thrust is basically right, doesn’t tell us actually how you get at these market and behavioral failures.  There are a lot of different instruments that you’d use, some of them would be regulatory, some of them are information as we’ve discussed, some of them are just attitude changes.  There are so many different interventions, and unless you set about understanding why the low-hanging fruit continues to hang, you’re not going to figure out how to get it picked.

3P:  Thanks, Jim.


What do you see as the biggest efficiency bangs for the bucks?


Charles Shereda is a computer scientist turned clean tech entrepreneur.  He is passionate about empowering people with the means to lower energy costs and improve their lives in the process.  He holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School.

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