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Saving Gigabucks with Negawatts (1985)

In an age of costly electricity and cheap efficiency, smart utilities will sell less electricity and more efficiency.

Fortnightly Magazine - March 21, 1985
  • household appliances. For example, among the biggest users (refrigerators), the best mass-produced model, by Toshiba, uses a third as much electricity as an average U.S. model the same size: Toshiba has made its refrigerators 5.5 times more efficient in 10 years and is still improving them at the same rate. The best refrigerator in pilot production is about eight times as efficient as the U.S. average. The best prototype is 100 times as efficient — a 99 percent saving. Its payback is about five to six years at handmade prices, and should be about zero when it is eventually mass-produced. Such refrigerators can ultimately displace 25 GWe of installed U.S. capacity; other efficient appliances can save about 33 GWe.
  • The photocopier in our office uses about a tenth the usual amount of electricity, because it sets the toner with a cold compression roller instead of a heated drum. New computers use 80 to 90 percent less power than mid-1970s models.
  • New methods of properly sizing, coupling, and controlling electric motors typically double the practical drive efficiency at under 1 cent per kilowatt-hour. This one saving would displace over 70 GWe, or every nuclear plant in the country.
  • A $100,000 microcomputer control for a giant compressor can save $1 million on its annual energy bill while greatly reducing its downtime.
  • The best aluminum smelters save about 40 percent, and if Mitsui’s experimental coal-fired aluminum-smelting blast furnace works commercially, it will smelt aluminum using no electricity. Furthermore, many structural uses of aluminum and steel will probably be displaced by composites within this decade.
  • Advanced Swedish pulp- and papermaking processes could save about 67 percent of the fuel and 42 percent of the electricity used by Swedish plants in 1975 (which were more efficient than most U.S. plants are today), cost effectively at under 2.3 cents per kilowatt-hour. Many chemical processes show even larger savings.
  • At the same price, all of Swedish industry — the world’s most energy-efficient, and more biased than U.S. industry towards energy-intensive products — can double its electrical efficiency, using advanced technologies which are now starting to enter the market.
  • Technological progress is rapid even in the most mundane areas. The best commercially available windows (R-5.4 argon-filled Heat Mirror) insulate twice as well as triple glazing, cost less, and typically gain more winter heat than they lose, even facing due north. R-11 to R-19 windows and half-inch thick R-30 insulation using evacuated glass beads are now experimental.

The effectiveness of many of these newly available electricity saving measures is illustrated by a 4,000-square-foot house-indoor farm-research center which my wife and colleague Hunter and I recently built at 7,100 feet in the Rockies — an 8,700-degree-day climate with temperatures down to –40 degrees. The building needs no heat: It passively captures a third more than it needs, and we vent the excess. It provides uniform comfort year-round with zero backup. It also uses only about 0.12 watts of electricity per square foot — less than a tenth the usual amount — and a third the normal of water. Our total energy bill for all