Category Archives: Water Management

Experiences as an Electrical Utility Energy Auditor

By Aaron Martin, ESG Energy Analyst 

It is no secret that energy efficiency is here to stay. From homeowners to building managers to public utilities, we strive to maximize comfort, increase productivity, and enhance generation and distribution while simultaneously decreasing energy usage. As energy prices continue to rise, efficiency will very likely become the new norm. To paraphrase the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, the term “green” may very well disappear from the modern lexicon as we replace older, resource-intensive methods and materials with modern, efficient alternatives.

Near the forefront of these efforts are the public utilities. The corporations that provide us with the energy we need to work and play have a vested interest in increasing efficiency and reducing demand. Avoided costs create added profits, streamlined services for customers, and funds for research and development. According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, the typical coal-fired power plant has capital costs of around $3,250 per kilowatt; given that such a facility has a capacity of approximately 500 megawatts, it goes without saying that your local utility would love to avoid building another power production plant.

Duke Energy is no exception in this regard. Their website has received an overhaul that emphasizes energy efficiency, containing graphical analyses and tailored data points for homeowners, and even features an energy efficient product shopping area. Over the past couple of years, residential customers may have noticed the promotion of more efficient lighting through the distribution of free compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs). Duke Energy representatives have taken the subject of energy efficiency to local schools; during his kindergarten year, my son  came home one day with an energy efficiency kit containing CFLs and high efficiency plumbing fixtures (but as the son of an energy geek, these items were well known to him). Finally, Duke’s Smart Saver program offers residential customers financial incentives for purchases of select energy efficient heating and air conditioning products as well as home air leakage reduction services and insulation upgrades.

Over the course of the past three weeks, I acted as an auditor for Duke Energy’s Home Energy House Call (HEHC) program, during which time I visited nearly fifty homes throughout the Piedmont. Free for Duke Energy customers that own their own home (more about the HEHC program can be found here), the program features a visit by an energy expert who performs an abbreviated energy audit, as well as the distribution of an energy efficiency kit and additional CFLs upon request. The typical house call takes between 45 and 60 minutes, with visual inspections of heating and cooling systems and insulation levels taking precedence. Homeowners are interviewed on their energy usage habits, and then receive a customized report that can be used to increase the comfort and efficiency of their home.

For someone who is more accustomed to residential new construction testing, the experience of face-to-face communication with homeowners in homes built between the years of 1920 and 2008 was as rewarding as it was diverse. The houses I visited ranged from 800 square foot bungalows to 7,200 square foot mansions. When asked about the prime reason for scheduling the house call,  I estimate that approximately 50% attributed the appointment to high bills, 25% to comfort-related issues, and the remaining 25% to the desire for a general discussion on energy efficiency.  Though time management was a bit tricky during the first three to five days, I soon developed a rhythm that allowed me to thoroughly answer questions and address concerns while still accomplishing all items on the to-do list.

The homeowners were as diverse as the homes that I visited. While some people declined the free CFLs (one cited the dangers of mercury as a prime factor), most were very excited to replace their incandescent bulbs and begin saving money immediately. I was very encouraged to see the overwhelming desire to reduce electrical consumption and the overall interest in residential energy efficiency. Indeed, several customers will most likely pursue advanced home performance  diagnostic testing (a comprehensive home energy audit or duct leakage testing) in the near future. It was extremely gratifying to assist people struggling with expensive bills; in one instance I discovered a very large leak in a supply duct in the homeowner’s crawl space, which, when sealed, will result in significant savings. I was also able to identify an air sealing point at another home with an attached garage that will lead to heightened levels of indoor air quality and health and safety for the occupants.

But most of all, I feel very grateful to have had such a tremendous learning experience, seeing various construction styles, materials, and heating and cooling systems that I had not seen before, while helping homeowners increase the comfort, durability, and energy efficiency of their homes. Humans often focus on the negative, and with respect to large companies or other entities, on the products or services they lack. Perhaps it’s time to celebrate the minor victories. When American homeowners get excited about saving money and reducing their carbon footprint, everyone wins, and if the public utility is a driving force in making this happen, then more power to them.

 Sources:

(1) http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/capitalcost/xls/table1.xls

(2) http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/coalvswind/c01.html

Stretch Your Budget the Furthest

By Brad Fletcher, Energy Analyst 

When a homeowner engages in energy efficiency upgrades on their home, the list of possibilities can sometimes feel exhausting. Unlike a kitchen upgrade or the addition of a bedroom, a whole house energy efficiency plan may be designed and executed over an extended period of time. An energy professional will help homeowners find the incentives and/or rebates available for the upgrades they recommend. Homeowners, with the help of an energy professional, typically develop a hierarchy of upgrades based on the cost effectiveness of each improvement for the home. Here are a few to start with:

Air sealing and insulating the home is an investment ranging from $50-$2000. Keeping the heat in and the cold out makes practical sense and is often the upgrade that stretches the homeowner’s dollar furthest.

Replacing the lighting with higher efficiency bulbs such as Compact Fluorescent Lighting (CFL) or Light Emitting Diodes (LED) can cost between $5-$50 per fixture and result in a short payback period making this investment a no brainer.

In a typical home, the heating and air conditioning system(s) consume the most energy and cost the most to operate. Upgrades to the HVAC system can result in considerable savings. Improving the mechanical system can include duct sealing, thermostat replacement, cleaning and tuning or in some cases, replacement with a more efficient system.  These improvements can range from $50-$3000 depending on the size of the home and extent of improvements.

Replacing water fixtures may seem like an unlikely way to save energy, but installing low-water usage or aerated fixtures in your kitchen and bathroom will reduce the amount of hot water needing to be generated by a home’s water heating system. Improving the efficiency of faucets and shower heads can range from $2-$200 and save both energy and water.

Older kitchen appliances can consume much more energy than newer, Energy Star rated appliances. Replacing old appliances that have become one of your home’s largest energy hogs will not only cut your total energy cost, but improve the look of your kitchen as well! A combination of dishwasher and refrigerator replacement range from $1500-$3000.

While there are abundant opportunities to improve the efficiency of an existing home, there are even more possibilities that exist in new home construction. This is due to both the technology that can be applied during the construction process as well as the ‘blank slate’ approach where builders can utilize more stringent standards and design features to improve the energy efficiency of your house. When constructing a new home, be sure to speak with your builder about how they can help reduce the cost of operating the home.

If you’re building a new home or doing energy upgrades to your current home, an energy professional can work with contractors and homeowners to calculate which upgrades provide the homeowner with the biggest bang for their buck. Beautiful light fixtures and stunning floor coverings are amenities you are able to see every day while energy efficiency is an amenity you can also feel and see on your monthly utility bills. With a wide range of upfront investment possibilities, energy efficiency is the only investment that will pay you back!

Living Building Project Unfolds in Seattle on Earth Day

annie-pryorWritten by ESG Energy blog contributor and Warren Wilson College student Annie Pryor.

The Bullitt Foundation, which distributes grants for sustainable projects, has given birth to a living building.  Today the new building opens its eyes and ears in Seattle, WA. It will begin detecting and recording energy use in its large brain, and will be expelling waste through its digestive track (its composting toilets). But there’s so much more: this building, much like a flower, produces its own power through its solar panels. The building absorbs, filters, uses and recycles gray rainwater for all of the buildings’ hydration needs. You can’t even park on this living building premises. That’s right – to get there, one must run, skateboard, or bike. There are no concrete parking spaces.

Despite the obvious successfully green elements of the Bulitt Foundation’s new infant, The Seattle Times offered some criticisms to its status as a “living building,” differentiating living buildings from “deep green buildings.” These deep green buildings possess sustainable elements, but do not match living green building standards holistically. For example, projects that seek living building status cannot ship in materials over large distances, use toxic materials like Asbestos and Formaldehyde, or build on underdeveloped sites. They must limit building growth, protect sensitive ecological habitats, promote car-free living, protect and promote sustainable water usage, rely on sustainable energy sources (like solar power), maximize both physical and psychological health of tenants, residents and building users, and promote excellent indoor air quality. Deep green buildings may include some of these elements, but Living Green Buildings require the integration of all and more of these elements, as they are seen as essential components to creating a functioning living organism.

So does the Bulitt Foundation’s new creation qualify as a Living Building? Well, the Living Building challenge certification requires a building to operate for at least 12 months before it can be evaluated, as this certification depends on realized or actual building sustainability performance, not estimates.

For more information about other Living Building Projects, grants offered by the Bullitt Foundation, or criticisms on Living Building Projects visit:

www.livingbuildingchallenge.org

http://bullittcenter.org/news/press-clips/a-building-not-just-green-but-practically-self-sustaining

http://seattletimes.com/html/businesstechnology/2018728847_livingbuilding20.html

Green Campuses Channel Brighter Futures

Written by ESG Energy blog contributor and Warren Wilson College student Annie Pryor.

Managing water is one of the larger components of green initiatives in the contemporary sustainability movement. At Warren Wilson College, my current undergraduate university, we pride ourselves on the fact that we are a green, sustainable college. In regards to the particular issue of sustainable water use, Warren Wilson has responded in numerous ways: the Plumbing Crew has installed shower timers, low-flush toilets, and fliers that blare the woes of excessive water consumption. And, while we have a few compostable toilets in our “Ecodorm,” Warren Wilson has met its match when it comes to water conservation.

According to Joshua Sebold at GreenBuildingNews.com, the University of California at San Diego has just received LEED certification for the construction of some particularly groovy student housing. The new Charles David Keeling Apartments’ shower water and sink water is collected and then reused all year long to “recharge the water table in the winter and irrigate plants in the summer” and water the apartments’ green roof. The green roof, of course, has an added bonus: a high functioning building envelope.

Whether we’re saving liters or reusing 100 acre-feet, the essence and goal remains the same: to conserve water and educate students about the importance of water use in general. Through both large and small projects, college campuses are leading the march to a greener, brighter future.

Conserving Water by Changing Energy Sources

Annie Pryor is a student at Warren Wilson College in Asheville NC and a frequent contributor to the ESG Energy blog.

What does renewable energy have to do with conserving water? What are the deeper connections between water and energy shortages? Could humankind help tackle the shortage of energy and water simultaneously? Could we “kill two birds with one stone?”

According to a Civil Society Institute survey “Three out of four Americans – including 61 percent of Republicans, 84 percent of Democrats and 80 percent of Independents – think that with all the current concern about severe drought and the risk of water shortages, American needs to start focusing more on alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar, that require less water.”

We use too much energy– at least the type that degrades our environment and pollutes our water and air. The majority of Americans agree that we could confront our energy and water sources head on, by reducing US dependence on natural gas and coal.

National Geographic’s Dawn Wallis writes, “The most common forms of traditional energy production –coal, natural gas, and nuclear—all utilize water during mining processes and for coaling during combustion […] Solar, wind and geothermal systems require little or no water and often reuse water supplies to minimize impact.”

So, what’s stopping us?

Well, for one, coal directly contributes to the satiation of the USA’s energy craving; hey, some say, it’s ‘local’ and ‘homegrown.’ In 2008, Richard Heinburg suggested that the US is the “‘the Saudi Arabia of coal.’ It is the world’s second-largest coal producer, after China.” Practically speaking coal seems like a simple solution to the energy problem, and that hinders the push for renewable energy sources. It seems that many see energy as a need that must be satiated immediately, and CAN be, even if that means compromising the quality of our water.

However, as Heinburg argued, “Coal currently looks like a solution to many of America’s fast-growing energy problems. However, this is a solution that, if applied on a broad scale, seems certain only to exacerbate the nation’s energy dilemma in the long run, as well as contributing to an impending global climate catastrophe.”

We must consider the long term impacts of our political, economic, and ecological policies: in this case we must take advantage of the fact that our energy use directly correlates with the quality of our water, our quality of life, and the quality of our children’s lives.

Sources:

Heinburg, Richard. “Coal in the United States.” Energy Bulliten. Online: 2008.             http://www.energybulletin.net/node/45005

Walls, Dawn. “Traditional Energy Sources vs. Green Power Sources.” National             Geographic . Online. http://greenliving.nationalgeographic.com/traditional-            energy-sources-vs-green-power-sources-2442.html

 

The times are a burning

Written by ESG Energy blog contributor and Warren Wilson College student Annie Pryor.

It’s a wonder my mother managed to harvest a few tomatoes out of her Indiana garden this year. My father told me he’d seen farmers cropping their corn early, to burn it or feed it to the hogs. My good friend Claire, living in Washington, just last week, was offering rides to people who needed to escape from the forest fires currently ravaging the west coast. My grandmother, in Nebraska, waits for the next drop of rain as it seems that soil hasn’t been touched by anything but irrigated water all summer long.

So, it’s dry, extremely dry. What do we do about the weather? It’s not like we can make rain fall…

Or can we? Instead of praying for rain, it’s time to wisen up and start conserving the fresh water we have. There are a few things you can do:

One: turn off your water. Not just when you’re washing your hands, but when you’re showering, too. Depending on how much water your showerhead or faucet expels (GPM: Gallons Per Minute), you could be saving at least 2 gallons a minute. Sounds small, but after cutting off five minutes of shower time every day … you could end up saving at least 70 gallons of water a week.  Even simply turning the water off while you brush your teeth can make a difference.

Two: stop using so much electricity. Sounds crazy right? But the more light bulbs you use, the more microwaves, the more clothes-driers, the more energy you use and the more water you waste. And the use of electricity often elicits the use or pollution of water. According to a recent Civil Society Institute survey:

“[O]n average, nearly 50 percent of the water withdrawal in the US is used by thermoelectric power plants for cooling and the generation of steam power. Facilities that use ‘once-through’ cooling withdraw huge quantities of water from lakes and rivers and return the water at a much higher temperature to the detriment of downstream ecosystems.”

Three: Reuse your water. That’s right, you can actually use the old water, or ‘grey water,’ from your shower, washing machine and kitchen sink to freshen up those dry veggies. (No worries, grey water is not water that has come into contact with your poo.). For more information about grey water, or recycling your water, visit greywateraction.org. You can also collect rainwater in barrels, if you’re blessed with decent amounts of rain during this dry summer.

In short, reuse, renew, and recycle your water. It’s that pure and simple.

Water Economics: Demand-Side

This is the final post in a 3-part series by Zach Power, who has served as an intern and contributing blogger at ESG Energy during his senior year at Elon University.

Support for demand reduction strategies can be found in the 2005 California Water Plan, which provides data illustrating the downward trend of per capita water consumption. Over the past four decades, Californian per capita water use has decreased by 50 percent, providing strong evidence for the efficacy of efficiency improvements in urban and agriculture use, water recycling, and groundwater management. At the national level, the launch of the Environmental Protection Agency’s new water conservation program, WaterSense, targets areas such as California and North Carolina for efficiency gains in the same way Energy Star has helped increase national electricity efficiency. The WaterSense insignia indicates that the product in question performs, at minimum, 20 percent more efficiently and could provide federal assistance, in the form of tax breaks etc., to supporters of WaterSense certified products and homes, which can reportedly “save 30,000 gallons per year – enough to supply a year of drinking water for 150 […] neighbors”. Such a steady decline testifies to the impact technology and regulatory standards can have on everyday use.

As our populations continue to grow in number, we will be faced with decisions on how best to use our tax dollars – to focus on increasing our supply of usable water or decreasing the amount required for our daily lives. Governments like California and North Carolina are already thinking about ways to address the problem, but citizens can make their opinions heard too. ESG-Energy finds the support for improved technologies to be convincing, and currently helps homeowners and businesses reduce their consumption of water without affecting behavior by inspecting and verifying homes as WaterSense certified. The goal is for North Carolina to remain ahead of the curve and avoid facing the same severities areas in the west are currently addressing.