Consumer Choice

What Can Consumers and Businesses do?

Consumers today have more choices than ever.  Competition brings new and advanced technologies that were never before available.  The cheapest energy source currently available is conservation and efficiency.  Beyond those two options, consumers can control their own energy destiny by their building space with on site solar energy and wind power and/or purchasing only clean energy or demanding clean energy policies (as illustrated later in this document).  Finally, our driving habits as well as our transportation choices have a dramatic impact on costs and the environment. Here’s what consumers should do:  focus on tune-ups and energy efficiency improvements, integrate clean energy (such as solar power and solar thermal) and change our transportation habits and investments.  Remember, if you demand it, someone will step up to supply it.

Energy Efficiency

Optimal efficiency starts with the architecture.  Homeowners and businesses should demand building’s that utilize passive (heating and cooling) design techniques to reduce or even eliminate heating and air conditioning systems.  This will inherently improve comfort and reduce the size of heating and air conditioning systems which lowers first costs as well as long term utility costs.  Other improvements include planting summer shade trees, boosting attic or roof insulation, adding ceiling exhaust vents to keep the attic cool in the summer and adding a whole house fan to flush the hot air out from a hot unoccupied day or low horsepower, slow spinning, long blade recirculating fans to temper already conditioned air.

Since heat rises, under floor heating and above ceiling hydronic cooling is a cost effective alternative to conventional all air HVAC systems.  This eliminates the need for mechanical fans and leaky, dirt accumulating ductwork while improving comfort and reducing the need for humidification to offset dry air effects.  Below grade air supply ducts, ground source heat pumps and hybrid solar absorption heating and cooling systems offer optional efficiency improvements.  When mechanical heating systems are used, they should always be controlled by programmable thermostats or an energy management system that drops temperatures as low as possible during the winter and set back even lower at night and off when unoccupied.  Cooling should follow the same concept: set as high as possible in the summer, set up even higher at night and off when unoccupied.  Remember, comfort is largely defined by the difference in temperature between outside and inside and need not be an absolute 68 or 78 F.

Lighting can easily be improved by replacing incandescent lamps (bulbs) with long lasting super efficient light emitting diodes (LEDs).   Appliances can be improved by purchasing Energy Star Rated products to lower electric consumption.

Solar Power

A technology that needs to become more widespread with architects, engineers and builders is Building Integrated Photovoltaics (BIPV). Integrating PV into the building enables replacement of roofs, windows and facades with components that also generate electricity and often function better.  This design approach, along with energy efficient design, is the major impetus of Architecture 2030 is a non-profit, non-partisan and independent organization whose goal is to “achieve a dramatic reduction in the global-warming-causing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of the Building Sector by changing the way buildings and developments are planned, designed and constructed.”[xviii]

Rooftop PV and BIPV can be either stand-alone or grid-tied. Grid-tied systems feed the electricity produced by solar panels to the grid.  If more solar energy is produced than what is needed by the building, the excess electricity is sent down the line to the next building that needs electricity. Buildings that generate electricity and are grid-tied are typically on a net energy metering (NEM) rate tariff with the local utility. NEM customers are allowed to subtract the energy (kWh) produced by solar from their utility bill. Unfortunately, the majority of these rate tariffs do not allow the customer to get paid for excess solar production or available power (kW demand).   Hopefully this will change as policymakers and regulators recognize the long term benefits of clean power and incentivize the market to accept it.

Solar Thermal

Solar thermal technologies also provide a clean, energy savings opportunity. This technology uses the sun’s radiant energy to produce heat. The heat can be used to passively heat or cool a space or actively produce power, heat water (or almost any fluid) and even provide cooling through absorption systems.

Both PV and solar thermal are attractive technologies for homes and businesses since systems can be mounted on or near the buildings. Point source generation minimizes transmission and distribution requirements as well as line losses. Rooftop mounting is further advantageous because of space and sunlight availability. According to a study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the low estimate of PV rooftop potential is 900 – 1,500 terawatt-hours (TWh) annually, equivalent to 25% – 40% of total U.S. electricity consumption in 2004.[1],[xix]  Today’s U.S. net installed solar capacity accounts for only 1 percent of the nation’s total electricity usage.  Potential for further development is certainly significant!


As mentioned above, approximately one quarter of U.S. energy consumption is from the transportation sector.  Therefore, reducing vehicle fuel consumption will mitigate energy use and associated environmental damage. Americans are accustomed to traveling in single-occupancy vehicles to and from work. We like this luxury; however, it is essential we change our ways of thinking. Methods include: improving environmentally friendly modes of transport, enhancing mass transit infrastructure, ride sharing, cycling paths, and sidewalks in and around cities.  To encourage this, cities must set goals for developing sustainable transportation practices and annually evaluate their progress on sustainable transportation projects. In addition, public awareness about the consequences of different transport modes on energy consumption and climate change is necessary. Businesses can help reduce transportation energy consumption by allowing employees to telecommute and/or work four ten hour days for example.

Eliminating single-occupant vehicles is not likely in the near term; therefore, low GHG, high efficiency vehicles are also necessary. Fortunately, hybrid vehicles, plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles are expanding, thanks in most part to California’s AB32 legislation that mandated all auto makers have a minimum % of zero emissions vehicles as part of their sales.   Hybrid vehicles, particularly plug-in hybrids have the potential to reduce our oil usage and associated emissions. To start with, a conventional hybrid vehicle currently produces approximately 22% less emissions than a conventional car. A plug-in hybrid produces approximately 36% less emissions than a conventional car.  An electric vehicle charged by solar power truly has no emissions.  Translating this into oil use, 55% of U.S. oil consumption could be eliminated by converting the entire US vehicle fleet to plug-in hybrids and natural gas vehicles.

Before the Natural gas boom from hydraulic fracturing, the US imported just over 50% of its oil.  In a few short years, the US has become a net exporter.  The conversion of trucking fleets to natural gas is well underway for one simple reason.  Natural gas in the US is now less expensive than diesel and provides a competitive edge for US industry.  If this natural resource is sold internationally, the revival of domestic manufacturing in the US will surely be short lived as fuel prices will escalate rapidly while the losing energy independence.[xx]

Manufacturers respond demand, as Americans demand higher efficiency and zero emissions vehicles, the market will respond favorably.  By demanding higher fuel efficiency standards , zero-emission vehicles, and high efficiency mass transportation networks, our policymakers will continue to develop programs and policies supporting the development and implementation of high efficiency technologies throughout America.

Obviously walking and cycling are far cleaner (and healthier) modes of transportation.  Mass transit, such as rail is far more efficient, per person-mile, than automobiles.  Hybrids cars are a good transition away from inefficient reciprocating engines.  Plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles are obvious improvements over standard hybrids since the necessary electric infrastructure is already in place.  When battery technologies mature and allow for longer range and faster charging at common household voltages, electric vehicles take off.  A notable alternate to battery storage is the fuel cell.  Fuel cells store hydrogen gas that is turned into electricity through a chemical process that combines hydrogen with oxygen from the air.  Most experiments today use hydrogen-rich fossil fuels such as methanol or natural gas. Even though the air pollution is small, the dependency on oil, finding hydrogen gas station and storing it onboard are still major obstacles.[xxi],[xxii]  A recent breakthrough in hydrogen production via mimicking photosynthesis yields promise for fuel cells.  This room temperature, low energy process may enable hydrogen production in the home (powered by renewable energy) or using a stationary fuel cell as a battery for the home or office.[xxiii]

About the author

Leave a Reply