The Basics: Energy Efficiency 101

With summer upon us, it’s prime time for air conditioning and road trips. In many parts of the country, the summer season is the peak time for energy use. To cut back on energy use (and energy bills!) let’s talk about energy efficiency. Energy efficiency means doing more with less—so we maintain (or exceed) performance while saving both energy and money. An efficient air conditioner will keep you cool using less electricity and a car with better fuel economy will require fewer fill-ups while still getting you where you need to go. Energy efficiency can help meet the country’s growing demand for energy just as well as oil, gas, coal, uranium or renewables can. It is the fastest, cleanest and most economical energy resource we have.

Due to many niche applications for efficient technologies, energy efficiency is a complicated topic without a one-size-fits-all solution. However, various technologies and policies can support the efficient use of energy throughout our daily lives. Efficiency is often referred to as the ‘low-hanging fruit' and, if applied widely, it has the potential to displace the need for conventional energy, including existing or new power plants.

So what does energy efficiency mean for consumers? Efficient products are now readily available, so an informed individual can easily choose efficiency in their day-to-day lives. For example, we now have the option to buy a gasoline/electric hybrid vehicle in order to improve our gas mileage, a choice that was not even available two decades ago when theEnergy Star program began.

What we are really interested in is performance, hence, the focus on energy efficiency. We can meet conservation targets without giving up desired results. After all, when we want a cold beer, we don’t really care how it got cold,  so we may as well be as efficient as possible.

To set the stage let’s go over some energy basics. The standard units for energy at the household level are Watts (W) and kilowatts (kW) where 1000 W equals 1 kW. Energy is measured over time as a kilowatt-hour (kWh). One kWh is equivalent to turning on one conventional 100W bulb for 10 hours. The number of kilowatts used in your home to power all of your appliances and devices each month is reflected on your electric bill.

How does energy efficiency work? Take that 100W light bulb as our example. What we want from the light bulb is the light, but in the process of lighting the bulb with electricity, heat is also generated. So, unless we are counting on that bulb for warming us up, that energy is wasted. Energy efficient light bulbs, on the other hand, provide us with the same light, but with less loss of energy to heat. That is the heart of energy efficiency; we get the same results, but with less energy wasted. Fewer kWhs wasted means fewer kWhs on your electric bill, thus saving you money.

Efficiency vs. Conservation

Energy efficiency and energy conservation often get mentioned together. Though there is a relationship, they are two different things. Efficiency means products we use do the same or more of what we require of them by using less energy. Conservation, however, means simply using less energy or foregoing something, like turning off the lights. Efficiency often results in some conservation of energy, but the opposite is not true. For example, instead of using a 100W light bulb for 10 hours, we use a 100W equivalent LED bulb that only uses 16W for the same time period. Over the 10 hours of lighting, we use 0.16 kWh of energy versus the 1kWh used to power the conventional bulb. That is efficiency resulting in energy conservation. If we are going for equal units of conservation using the 100W light bulb, it means that you only use the 100W light bulb for 1.6 hours of lighting instead of 10. Ideally, you switch to the 16W bulb and cut back on your usage. After all, who needs to have a light on continuously for 10 hours, but I digress.

Working towards energy efficiency requires technological change and development. Conservation, while it can be a virtue and certainly has its place, may not result in the product performance to meet our needs. Efficiency means progress and can save us resources and money too.

What we are really interested in is performance, hence, the focus on energy efficiency. We can meet conservation targets without giving up desired results. After all, when we want a cold beer, we don’t really care how it got cold,  so we may as well be as efficient as possible.

This summer, let’s think about how we can be more energy efficient. If you are in the market for a home cooling system, a new set of wheels or any other items that may be energy efficient, check out Energy Star products and fuel economy ratings.  After all, who wouldn’t want to spend less time at the gas station and save money on their energy bills, all while staying cool?

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