Here I offer a few ideas “off the top of my head” on how we might address our energy (and water) needs in the future, when we can expect to have much higher energy costs and a much greater need to save every bit of energy possible. Some are simple and low cost, and could be implemented now, while others would be economically justified if they were standardized and mass produced at low cost, or when fuel prices become much higher than today. Our population is so great that even a tiny saving becomes great if used by many. I am sure there are many more ideas out there, and welcome your offering them for discussion here. I will add more as I think of or encounter them. The most powerful idea is the last one in the list.
Ideas the homes and businesses:
Go back to two-valve faucets – single handle faucets don’t make it clear when you are using only cold water, and some may mix in a little hot water all the time. In effect, they make you use more hot water by mixing it in when all you wanted or needed was cold water. Why run the water heater when you don’t need to? A two-valve faucet lets you turn on only the cold water when that is all you want.
Foot-controlled faucets – Easy, hands-free control of faucets lets you only run water when you really need it, and discourages turning on the valve and letting it run. This feature currently exists in some hospital and industrial settings, but in very few homes.
High technology insulation – Could nanotechnology produce insulation that uses vacuum or partial vacuum in combination with infrared reflective materials to provide much higher R-factors in thinner insulating products?
Water pipes with built in insulation – Why can’t pipe for plumbing be bought with integral, high R-factor insulation? Reducing the time people must run water to allow it to get hot, for example, would save both energy and fresh water.
Time and motion-operated light controls – For hallways, stairways, and other areas where people don’t remain still for periods of time the best alternative light control would allow manual switching or automatic operation by motion sensing, then turn off after a delay of some number of seconds. When I traveled in Italy a couple of years ago many hallway lights had timers or motion sensors, but they won’t catch on here until energy prices are much higher.
Inexpensive whole-house remote electrical controls – While a few outlets need to be on all the time to run clocks, fish tank pumps, etc., most could be switched off a lot of the time, thereby turning off power to remote controlled devices, “wall wart” chargers, and other standby power supplies. Turning on and off could be accomplished by cell phone, internet access, a key fob good to 50 yards distance, and/or a switch at the door. In this way a lot of needless drain on the electrical infrastructure could be eliminated. Current systems are not integrated into the home electrical system and are expensive.
Light-colored roofing materials – While there may be a reason why so many roofs are black or dark in color, I don’t know what it is. Insulation is applied to the top of the house’s living space, not to the underside of the roof, so collecting heat in the attic makes no sense at all. I do know that heat radiating down into the house from the attic in summer creates a continuous battle for my air conditioning system, and less heat in the attic would not only reduce my cooling bills but reduce ice damming in winter and generally make shingles last longer. Where heat is collected to warm the house or pre-heat hot water, it is done by using specially designed heat collectors on the roof or outside wall, not by accumulating heat in the attic.
Dehumidifiers and air conditioning condensers that save water – Why don’t we use air conditioner condensers and dehumidifiers to produce water from the air in places where water is in demand?
Broader application of split curtains – Split, transparent plastic curtains are used in many commercial coolers to keep the cold air in while people and goods move in and out. Why can’t such curtains be used in the home or business to decrease incursion of cold or hot air? Why can’t similar curtains be created to help commercial conveyor ovens retain their heat as products move in and out?
More ways to avoid heating or cooling parts of a home – Will people put pet doors in interior doors to permit them to more efficiently heat or cool only certain rooms in the house? Will clothing styles change so that people wear electrically heated clothing in winter, and lighter clothing in summer?
Improved air exchange ventilators – Ventilation air exchangers are made today which can exchange a home’s air with the outside while keeping the difference between outgoing and incoming air down to only a few degrees. Why can’t a more sophisticated version of this device be created that would be more efficient and do a better job of providing ventilation while saving energy? If it was integrated with the HVAC controls it could help heat and cool a building more efficiently while providing fresh air.
Inexpensive integrated HVAC designs with wireless controls and control systems – Currently I can strategically open and close registers in my forced air HVAC system, or open and close valves in a hot water heating system, to manage what parts of my home get how much of my heating and cooling energy. While this can save a lot of money, it is a hassle to do, and too complicated for many people to master. Worse yet, it can’t be done when you are not at home. Standardization and mass manufacturing of the parts involved, sophisticated engineering to create more integrated and efficient systems, and standard use in new construction as well as retrofitting of existing buildings could create big energy savings in the future. Higher energy costs will make this increasingly justifiable.
Controlled-reflectivity glass – Currently I can make a big difference in the heating and cooling of my home by appropriately using white blinds or shades that reflect energy in the summer and let me bring the sun’s heat in during the winter. Watching the weather forecasts and operating the blinds effectively is a hassle though, and can’t be done when I’m away from home. Will we see an application of liquid crystal or similar technology to future window glass that will allow it to be adaptively controlled by your thermostat and work in conjunction with your heating and air conditioning system? There are huge savings in this idea.
Thermostat-controlled ventilation – For years before I had air conditioning I kept the house cool in the summer by opening the windows at night and putting fans in the upstairs windows to pull air through the house. Then, when the outside temperature approached the temperature inside, I shut off the fans and closed the windows, keeping the house cooler inside during the day. In the evening I opened the windows and started the fans as soon as the temperature outside fell below that in the house to complete the process. Doing this requires being home, watching weather forecasts and inside/outside thermometers, and is too much of a hassle for most people. This could be done automatically, however, controlled by my thermostat, and it would save a lot of energy.
Skylights – Widespread retrofitting with skylights, combined with seasonal work schedules, could significantly reduce electricity use for lighting in commercial and residential settings, making artificial lighting a supplemental rather than main source of light. This could be a real business opportunity for construction companies when new construction is greatly reduced.
Solar and wind power packages – Pre-engineered and mass produced power systems with batteries and power regulation included and that can be “dropped in” to a wide variety of situations could provide renewable power with a minimum of cost and maintenance. Such systems could power supplemental lighting and HVAC systems.
Wall chargers that shut off automatically when not in use – I have already plugged most of my wall chargers into outlet strips that can be shut off manually to stop their parasitic electricity use when they aren’t charging something. It would seem so simple to have them somehow shut off completely when not charging something that I don’t know why they don’t. Since the average home probably has a dozen of the little devils using a couple of watts each at idle, a reasonably sized coal-fired power plant could be avoided if they disconnected from the electricity when not in use.
More efficient electric motors – Electric motors for car windows, for example, have processors, sensors, and sophisticated control functions built in to enable one-touch opening and closing. Why don’t all new electric motors include more sophisticated energy-reducing controllers?
Flooring and road surfaces that generate electricity – Recently I wrote about a team of scientists who had created a device to generate electricity from the energy in falling raindrops. Now I have to ask myself if surfaces that generate electricity from footsteps and wheels rolling over them can be far away.
Ideas for transportation:
Instant start and low energy-start car engines – While this feature already exists in hybrids, whose electric motors can start instantaneously, many vehicles will continue to use internal combustion engines for some time to come as energy sources are diversified. The ability to start with a minimal use of fuel and turn off whenever the vehicle is stopped or coasting would save a lot of fuel. Have you ever watched how UPS delivery drivers operate their vehicles today? I have often seen them shutting their engines off and coasting to a stop, then not turn on the engine until the instant they are ready to move, and they seem very efficient at their jobs.
“Idle-while-coasting” vehicle drive trains – Engines in vehicles today stay engaged most of the time and run at a higher rate, consuming needless gas, when you are moving but your foot is off the gas pedal. Certainly the engine slows the car down at these times, but why do we need to continue to burn more gas than at an idle when we are really trying to reduce the speed of the vehicle?
Motion-detecting street light systems – Street lights generally burn all night, and, I expect, comprise a lot of the light visible from space (link). It would seem that street lights could be controlled in systems, using motion detectors, timers, and other sophisticated controls, to provide safe lighting for driving, walking, etc., while turning off lights when they are not needed.
The most effective idea:
Education – Many of the cheapest and most effective ways to reduce energy use require only that people understand their value and how to do them. Every school could teach a real home economics class, focusing on energy economics, that would make perhaps the biggest difference possible in the reduction of our per-capita energy use.
We are surely facing an energy crisis in our future, probably within the next couple of decades, due to our huge overpopulation of the planet and wasteful habits born of the cheap energy we’ve enjoyed in the past century. A great deal more work needs to be done, and quickly, if we are to avoid a serious decline in our lifestyles and those of our children and grandchildren, as fossil fuels inevitably become more expensive. It is each of our duties as human beings to learn, change, and collaborate with each other as effectively as possible to make good lives for ourselves and our descendants, and energy savings will be a key area of focus for some time to come. We are a creative species, however, and I have high hopes that we can and will master the challenges to move to a sustainable world in the next century or so. An old rust-proofing advertisement applies here: “It’s us, or rust.”
As always, I welcome your comments. Thanks in advance – Tim