July 5, 2008

What's needed, nationally and personally?

On the national level:


We can create policies that mandate or promote carpooling, telecommuting and videoconferencing. Telecommuting in particular could save 10B gallons of gasoline per year (7% of total consumption, or much more than ethanol) or more, with no pain at all. Sadly, business culture isn't quite ready for it - a rapid expansion of telecommuting will take a real push. Paradoxically, everyone would be better off. Similarly, telecommuting can be better than solo driving.

One painless and important change: we can immediately end policies that favor free parking, which effectively subsidize driving. One study estimates that up to 25% of commuters who receive free parking would stop driving alone to work, if their employers allowed them to receive the value of their free-parking in cash. Cities should charge more for parking (while reducing other business and citizen costs, such as sales or other taxes or fees, to avoid becoming un-competitive) and switch from requiring businesses to provide free parking to requiring businesses to charge for parking. This would encourage mass-transit and ride-sharing, and immediately save fuel (as much as 50% of city driving can be looking for parking!). This won't harm consumers: customers will find shopping much more convenient, and businesses will have more money to encourage shopping in other ways.

More transparency for futures trading would be helpful, and slightly reduced leverage (greater capital requirements) would help reduce any bubbles. Most of the speculation-related proposals would do more harm than good. For instance, elimination of the ability of institutional investors to trade futures would drive some to less transparent foreign markets. Elimination of trading by investors (those not taking delivery) would do a great deal of harm - at minimum it would make hedging much more difficult for many energy consumers.


Obviously, we need to dramatically raise fuel taxes - the best way would be a gradual increase over 5 years, with revenues rebated per capita to individual and industrial/commercial consumers. This will be very difficult to do before a true emergency, but the rebate would help sell it - like social security, it would spread the benefit in a reasonably progressive way.

Fuel taxes are much better than emissions-trading. Emissions-trading requires complex legislation and bureaucracies, and endless expenses in brokering. Sadly, carbon and fuel-taxes are much harder to sell, precisely because they're simpler, more transparent and more effective, which makes them seem more painful.

We need to raise the CAFE dramatically and provide rebates for plug-ins and electric cars (assistance to Detroit for retooling, and socialization of Detroit's pensions and healthcare costs wouldn't be a bad idea - the alternative for Detroit is bankruptcy, which will achieve the same ends in a much more painful way), and expand non-fossil fuel electrical generation ASAP. Obviously, the wind and solar federal programs need to be extended, with a 7 year gradual phaseout. Expanded mass transit is a good idea, though it's far from a silver bullet. National model building codes should be revised for much greater efficiency, and pushed into local government.

We need greatly expanded research into bio-fuels from cellulose and algae. Algae in particular has a great deal of technical potential. Cellulosic fuels will always be limited in scale, but improved processes could reduce their cost and environmental impact. Coal To Liquids with CO2 sequestration should be offered loan guarantees, to allow greatly expanded private investment without the fear of another Synfuel-type disaster (caused by the 80's oil price crash ).

I suspect that reliance on diesel is a blind alley - it's more efficient than gasoline, but only a little (a gallon of diesel has more energy, and carbon, than a gallon of gasoline), and it's success in Europe is dependent on subsidies. The US hybrid->plugin->ErEV->EV path seems much better in the longrun.

Here's a good article on these questions by Andy Grove, the ex-CEO of Intel: http://www.american.com/archive/2008/july-august-magazine-contents/our-electric-future

What can we do personally?


Better driving can save 20%. Try to take the train, carpool, or ask about telecommuting. The next time your work requires travel, ask if this can be done by teleconferencing. If not, ask if there are any plans to make it possible. All of these can make life easier, and at the same time cut costs dramatically.

Reduce home energy consumption: we all know the simple and effective things, like CFLs, plugging air leaks (windows, doors, attics, electrical outlets, roof, joints, chimney and walls), and programmable thermostats. Spot/room heating with electric space heaters is very cost-effective. Space heater infrared radiated at people (say, at one's desk or kitchen counter) is even more efficient, since it allows one to feel warm even if the air is cool. Comforters allow lower winter temperatures, and fans (ceiling and desk) allow higher summer temps. Simple, cheap, kits allow you to add a layer of insulation to windows with a sheet of transparent plastic.

How does saving electricity and natural gas help with oil/gasoline prices (for those of us not heating with fuel oil)? In the US, natural gas is used for both transportation and electrical generation, so NG connects the electricity and oil markets. Outside the continental US, oil is used for electrical generation.


High-mileage drivers can buy used high-MPG cars easily and quickly, such as a Corolla (40MPG highway, but as little as $3K for a reliable 10 year old model), or a Honda Insight (gets 60-70 MPG, but still only $10k). Get rid of an SUV, and rent it back when needed for heavy cargo. Look into carsharing.

At home:
-install better windows (we added two more layers to our thermopane windows, and now don't need the furnace until outside temperatures are below freezing),
-replace appliances, including refrigerator, furnace and A/C, with higher efficiency models.
-Consider a heat-pump - new air-based heat pumps work very well, and are very cost effective, compared to any other form of heat.
-If you heat with fuel oil, simple resistance electricity may be cheaper for whole-house heating, and is relatively inexpensive to install. For instance, $4.50 #1 fuel oil is more expensive than 13 cent electricity (the national average is about 10 cents). There are about 35 KWHs per gallon (at 90% combustion efficiency): divide your cost per gallon by the $/KWH - if it's higher than 35, you'll save.
-Natural gas is almost always cheaper than simple resistance electricity (the necessary price ratio is 264, and we're only at about 130, on average).

Don't forget that these things help reduce household costs, CO2 and oil/gasoline prices (a threefer!).

When looking for a new job, give preference to closer jobs - this will pay many dividends beyond reducing fuel costs. Look for homes close to rail, or to work, if possible.


Anonymous said...

Air-based heat pump might be unsuitable for colder climates. Geothermal heat pumps have large upfront costs and long payback.

How do you feel about externally-vented programmable gas heaters in each room?
At first sight, these seem to be the choice heating, at least for colder climates.

Nick G said...

There are several air-based heat pumps designed for colder climates, including the Hallowell and several Japanese models - I'll try to research them for a post. Keep in mind that there is really no reason for efficiency to drop precipitously the way it traditionally has for air-based designs.

I haven't dealt with externally-vented, single-room programmable gas heaters. They sound like old-fashioned gas space-heaters, updated to eliminate their dangerous venting problems. Do you have info on them?

Anonymous said...

Yes, there are some here, from different manufacturers:


Particularly, I am looking at Japanese-made Rinnai heaters, as I heard from people interested in "green buildings" that these are very efficient and economical, quiet, and of a very high quality. OTOH, Robur Eurotherm models seem to be more pleasing esthetically and save floor space being in-the-wall units.

Right now I have a gas-fired forced -hot-air system circa 1975, not very efficient with only one zone.
The attraction of Rinnai and similar systems is that I pick and choose which rooms to heat, and installation costs are low as I do not have to tear the house apart to install these heaters.

Nick G said...

The Rinnai specifies efficiency of 84%, which seems a bit low these days.

Individual room heaters would give good temperature control. Wouldn't they be expensive for more than 1 or 2 rooms? You'd save on ductwork, but you would have to pipe gas to each unit, and provide outside venting. Also, they'd have to be at least a little noisier than a central unit. CO risks would rise a bit, with multiple units.

It seems like a niche application for unusual situations in old buildings, built before gas was available in that area.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for analysis.

As far as 84% efficiency is concerned, none of the gas systems I looked at had higher efficiency.

What would you suggest in my situation (a 2000sf house in Massachusetts?) An air based heat pump? Wouldn't running costs be higher?

Nick G said...

hmm. 84% is low for a central gas furnace, but maybe that's as good as a small room unit can do.

Well, let's get some background: what's your current method of heating (fuel type, central vs rm, distribution (duct, hot water pipe/radiator, etc)? Do you know the efficiency of your current system? What was your last 12 months of consumption?

How did you measure sq ft (e.g., outside wall to outside wall, or the sum of rooms, or other; does it include attic/basement)?

What are your current NG and KWH rates, including all taxes, delivery charges, etc. This should be the marginal cost of new demand, at the price band you'll likely be in. Do you have time-of-use electricity pricing available?

What have you done so far for efficiency/conservation (insulation, leaks, windows/doors, etc)?

This will help us get started.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for trying to help. I have a gas forced hot air system circa 1975, one zone, unknown efficiency.

My house (built in 1959) is a bit loose as most old houses are, although all the windows are recent and double or triple paned.

The house is split level/contemporary on four levels and its 2200 s.f. includes the lowest level, but not the attic.

My heating bill in January and February is about $500, less in other months.

NG Rate: about $2.10 per therm.

KWH Rate: from 3.5 cents to 9cents
depending on time of the day. We have time of use rates available., peak being 8am to 9pm

Nick G said...

Well, first, if you already have a central forced air system with ductwork, that points toward a central heat-pump system. Room units would make sense only if you were really capital-starved, or didn't have existing ductwork.

2nd, you have very high NG rates, and very low electricity rates (I'd doublecheck: the NG seems too high, and the electricity too low and too good to be true). That points to electricity - if you want room units, electric space-heaters, might be as cheap to run as NG units. Room electric heat-pumps would likely cut your costs in half. Most of all, it points to an central electric heat-pump.

Your annual gas bill might be $3K. A good central heatpump might save you $2k per year.

I'd look into the Hallowell air heatpump (they're local to you) - possibly the Acadia model. I think you'd get a very good return on your money.

I'm told that the HSPF rating of the Fujitsu 9RLQ and larger 12RLQ are 11.0 and 10.55 respectively. Both models operate down to -15C and over the course of the winter would provide an average of 3.1+ kWh of heat for every kWh consumed.

There's also Mitsubishi's new h2i line of Mr. Slim ductless heat pumps. I'm told that these models supply 100 per cent of their rated heating capacity at -15C, 87 per cent at -20C and 75 per cent at -25C and can operate for more than four hours at these sub-freezing temperatures before executing a defrost cycle. The discharge air temperature at -25C is +38C. Their HSPF is 9.4.

Anonymous said...

Just rechecked: sure enough, electricity rates are too good to be true - I have not noticed that I need to add 12.5c/kwh base rate, so the true rate is 16c/kwh off-peak to 22kwh peak.

Current NG rates are indeed $2.10 per therm, however. These might seem high to you because these are brand new rates as of July 1, 2008. Last winter the rates were around $1.30 per therm.

Thanks for pointing me to Hallowell heat pumps - doing research on them.