When the CFLs Go On

On Sunday, I drew attention to a power industry-backed study that forecast widespread blackouts and brownouts within a few years unless more electric infrastructure is built. (See “When the Lights Go Out.”) Although I didn’t endorse the findings of the report, I did say that we need to take such fears seriously. We have much to lose if the dire warnings prove true.

Now comes news that those brownouts and blackouts may not be quite so imminent. The Wall Street Journal reported today that electric utility executives are scratching their heads over shrinking power use by households and businesses in pockets across the country, wondering if they reflect “a permanent shift in consumption” that will force the industry to revise expansion plans predicated on projected one- to two-percent annual growth.

The decline in consumption cannot be easily explained by weather conditions or even the recession. Duke Energy Corp., for instance, said its Midwest operations saw a 5.9 percent decline in electricity sales in the 3Q compared to same-quarter sales a year before. Said Duke CEO Jim Rogers: “Something fundamental is going on.”

That something fundamental might be called energy conservation. Consumers have embraced CFL light bulbs on a wide scale. I’ve installed them in about half the lights in my house, and my electric bills have been running lower. They do make a difference. Meanwhile, businesses are spending billions of dollars on building automation systems in projects driven by energy cost savings. The business where my wife works, Tridium, is enjoying a banner year this year, largely on the basis of its software platform used in building automation.

Dominion wasn’t quoted in the WSJ article, and Virginia may be an exception to the trend. But stuttering electric demand does give heft to the argument advanced by the Piedmont Environmental Council that energy conservation can make a difference here and now, and that Dominion’s projections of intermittent blackouts in Northern Virginia may be flawed. If the PEC is right, there may be no justification for the electric transmission line that Dominion wants so badly to build.

Virginians don’t follow the metrics of electricity consumption. There is no single benchmark price, like the cost of a barrel of oil, that we can readily latch on to. But we need to start paying attention. We have to thread a narrow, avoiding both overinvesting in electric infrastructure, which runs up our electric rates, and underinvesting, which exposes us to brownouts and blackouts. Either way, we have a lot riding on sound public policy.

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16 responses to “When the CFLs Go On”

  1. err, maybe in the depression that we’re in for this Q electricity demand drops?

    I installed CFL and noticed no change on my electric bill. My parents house (mid 80) has over 40 120W halogoen floodlights, and I could see CFLs making a difference there.

  2. one of the things that could make a real difference IMHO would be the ability of a homeowner to see a screen that showed real time usage.. and let him/her take a closer look at where the use is.

    Part of this is that no two houses perform the same way… and no two families use electricity the same way and no two families would make the same choices of where to save and cut back.

    It’s a lot like driving your car and looking at the gas gage and wondering about your actual mileage.

    Some cars now have MPG read-outs and people find themselves changing some of their driving if it makes a real difference on the read-out.

    We need this same capability in homes.

    and.. it’s very hard to believe that the cost of such devices …would not ..in most cases.. fairly quickly pay for themselves not only in direct savings to the customer but the longer term need for more power plants and power lines.

  3. We did our entire house. Originally all of our old lights bulbs added up to us using about 1800watts. With the change to CFL’s its 720watts. So it’s a big difference – and our electric bill is lower.

  4. My rental house in Alexandria uses a ground source heat pump. The house is 3000 sq feet and houses four people. Since I had lot lived there ina long time and the system had been upgraded when the house was enlarged, I asked the tenants about there electric bill.

    They said their utilities, all up, generally ran around 150 but might peak to close to two hundred in extreme hot or cold snaps.

    The system costs about $5000 more to install, but that seems like a very reasonable utility bill to me.

    Nowadays you can get a combination system that is both generator and heat pump. You run the generator instead of buying power, and the excess heat boosts the heat pump. Ehen the heat or cooling demand isn’t all that high, the system sells back power to the grid.

    The power comapny may be in for more surprises, but Id be surprised if their price elasticity model is all that far wrong.


  5. Or just when the lightbulbs go on:

    http://www.typealyzer.com/index.php?lang=en Is a website thar purports to analyze the writing on a blog and profvid a psychological profile of the contributors:

    The analysis indicates that the author of http://www.baconsrebellion.blogspot.com is of the type:

    INTJ – The Scientists

    The long-range thinking and individualistic type. They are especially good at looking at almost anything and figuring out a way of improving it – often with a highly creative and imaginative touch. They are intellectually curious and daring, but might be pshysically hesitant to try new things.

    The Scientists enjoy theoretical work that allows them to use their strong minds and bold creativity. Since they tend to be so abstract and theoretical in their communication they often have a problem communcating their visions to other people and need to learn patience and use conrete examples. Since they are extremly good at concentrating they often have no trouble working alone.

  6. Darrell -- Chesapeake Avatar
    Darrell — Chesapeake

    My analysis of this blog reveals that most contributors are either farmers or bookfarmers. One is able to craft ideas and actually make them work. The other is good at thinking they can.

    I did the CFL and programmed thermostat thing when I bought this house. For some reason, McMansion designers always have this fetish for flood lamps. I dropped 100 a month off the light bill, and actually got my energy expense to less than my old 90s average style home.

  7. Anonymous Avatar

    Yep, my programmable thermostat worked wonders. So did the blanket on the water heater. I couldn’t find stom windows worth a crap, and they didn’t look right on this old house, so I had to custom make those. 10 down, thirty to go.

    Next, re-insulate all the steam pipes. Then blow insulation in whatever walls haven’t already been torn out and replaced. Tear out two interior chimneys and replace them with safe ones. Hope for tax credits next year.

    Hard t imagine what this place was like with a couple of wood stoves, back when we had real winters.


  8. Anonymous Avatar

    Larry is right about the MP read-out. When my guage drops, my foot comes right up automatically, unless I have someone behind me.

    But in a car the thing is right in front of you all the time. Don’t see it quite as useful in the house.


  9. Darrell -- Chesapeake Avatar
    Darrell — Chesapeake

    “Hard to imagine what this place was like with a couple of wood stoves, back when we had real winters.”

    I can imagine it was better than a single pot belly stove and newspaper covering the cracks in the walls.

  10. Anonymous Avatar


    The house I lived in on MV was built in 1712. I was thirteen before I learned that curtains were supposed to hang straight down.


  11. Anonymous Avatar

    It was so cold . . .
    words froze in the air. If you wanted to hear what someone said, you had to grab a handful of sentences and take them in by the fire.

  12. Darrell -- Chesapeake Avatar
    Darrell — Chesapeake

    Dang, you had curtains? Next you will be telling me there was a toilet.

    The first place I lived as a kid was my gggrandpops place. Musta been built around 1850. Picture your typical hillbilly house, then make it look like this one.


    Very hard to find pictures of houses like these. Most of these homes have rotted away by now. Ours was a few decades ahead of the rest.

    I remember when we got running water. Dug a hole on the hill, ran a 3/4 in. pipe down to the back porch. Always had to check to make sure salamanders didn’t end up in the pot.

  13. Anonymous Avatar

    I remember when granpa disappeared.

    The water tasted funny for a few weeks, then we discovered he had died up on the hill.

  14. Anonymous Avatar

    Pretty much the way this place was set up. Had a spring or well that fed a storage cistern, then gravity fed to the house. same “technology”, little grander scale.

    I never had to live like that, but I had friends that did. Coming from a palce like that, you can spend a big part of your life trying to multiply by zero, before you get enough traction to break free.

    some people never do.


  15. The Green Miles Avatar
    The Green Miles

    How about overinvesting in energy efficiency?

  16. Anonymous Avatar

    Overinvesting in energy efficiency pretty much spells the definition on an oxymoron, doesn’t it?

    You are overinvesting when you pay more than you save. If you manage to MANDATE overinvesting in energy efficiency, then you are messing around with someone else’s property rights.

    Nothing wrong with mandating some investment, but you immediately run into a problem of how much and what kind.


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