The endless efficiency resource, Part 854: Energy Dept. Fails to Use Thermostats to Cut Costs will meeting near-term U.S. greenhouse gas targets be so damn cheap and easy?  Because we live in The United States of Waste.  The U.S. economy is incredibly energy inefficient, a key reason even strong climate action has such a low total cost “” one tenth of a penny on the dollar.  Indeed, as McKinsey recently showed, the U.S. can meet entire 2020 emissions target with efficiency and cogeneration while lowering the nation’s energy bill $700 billion!

As but one more example, the NYT has a little story today that shows even the Department of Energy, like pretty much every major company I have ever worked with on greenhouse gas reduction, fails to take advantage of even the most cost-effective energy strategies:

The Energy Department strives to be a leader in championing energy efficiency. Its Web site lists energy-saving tips, while Secretary Steven Chu calls conservation one of the department’s most important goals.

But at many of the agency’s buildings, even at national laboratories where talented scientists seek technological breakthroughs to save energy, the department has failed to use one of the most effective tools available to any ordinary household: thermostats that automatically dial back the temperature when nobody is around.

A recent audit found that the department could save more than $11.5 million annually in energy costs by properly employing these “setback” controls to adjust the heat and air conditioning at night or on weekends.

Seems obvious.  The larger point is that even at an organization devoted to energy, there is very little institutional effort behind achieving savings or reducing waste — something I found out myself when I was there in the 1990s (see “Energy efficiency, the low hanging fruit that grows back“).

This story has many fascinating nuggets in it:

The Energy Department’s inspector general found that the department, which spends almost $300 million annually on utilities, could save enough energy to power more than 9,800 homes each year by doing what experts say every household in the country should also be doing.

The payback would far exceed the costs, and in some cases the equipment has actually been installed but is not working….

Lane Burt, an energy policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the department’s failure to use setbacks “was literally leaving money on the table.”

“They’ve actually invested taxpayer money to be more efficient, and then failed to use it,” Mr. Burt said. “It’s like a double penalty. But the good news is that because many of the systems are installed and ready, the savings can begin immediately.”

The inspector general reviewed 55 buildings at four department sites for the audit, finding that the agency had either not used or not suitably maintained setbacks at 35 of those buildings.

This, of course, is precisely why major organizations should have a serious program to regularly check that equipment is working properly and being operated optimally (see “Building Commissioning: The Stealth Energy Efficiency Strategy“).

The report found that at two buildings at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a National Nuclear Security Administration facility in New Mexico, facility operators were not trained to operate setback controls. At the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, part of the Office of Science, setback equipment was not replaced in two buildings after a 2008 electronic control system failure because officials there “planned to implement campus-wide energy conservation measures in the future.”

And the property manager for two recently leased buildings at the Y-12 National Security Complex, an N.N.S.A. facility in Tennessee, told auditors that the buildings’ owner had not obtained software needed to use setbacks.

In the report, some department officials implied that financing issues could have contributed to setbacks’ not being used, while others said their use “was simply not a priority.” For its part, the inspector general’s office said it “could find no plausible reason for the lack of interest.”

“We could not obtain what we considered to be a satisfactory explanation as to why the department failed to take advantage of this conservation practice,” the report said, “one that is generally low cost and has limited, if any, adverse impact on operations or building occupants.”

Harvey Sachs, a senior fellow at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, said he was not terribly surprised by what he called “just one example of almost universal market failures” when it came to energy conservation.

“If I was in the nuclear management business,” Mr. Sachs said, “I imagine there would be much more urgent stuff for me to worry about than where the thermostat is set.”

But, he added, the results of the audit were another sign that “for a lot of reasons, energy efficiency has not gotten as much play as it should have.”

The climate and clean energy bill has a remarkable number of pieces aimed at overcoming these market failures and capturing the enormous efficiency opportunity (see “The triumph of energy efficiency: Waxman-Markey could save $3,900 per household and create 650,000 jobs by 2030“).  If we are smart enough to pass it, the country will drive some $40 billion a year in private sector investment in energy efficiency (see “The only way to win the clean energy race is to pass the clean energy bill“).

16 Responses to The endless efficiency resource, Part 854: Energy Dept. Fails to Use Thermostats to Cut Costs

  1. Nancy says:

    The country needs a clever PR campaign on energy efficiency sponsored by the federal government, similar to the WWII campaigns to conserve energy and raw materials for the war effort.

    Guests from Scotland this week explained that heating oil costs $10 gallon, so they are turning to geothermal heating in their new construction and are insulating their homes. Plus, they wear warm sweaters in the winter so they don’t have to turn on the heat. They embrace frugality. America IS the land of waste.

  2. Bbhy says:

    If I was in charge, I would tell employees that half of any savings would go to them as a bonus. That would make it a priority.

  3. paulm says:

    Nancy, and the Scots had North Sea Oil!

  4. Rick says:

    Lack of efficiency must mean that the price of energy is still too low to make the difference. I see that in an apartment building I work at. When they built the place back in 69, they didn’t bother to insulate it because it’s in Vancouver and when they replaced the boilers and a bunch of hot pipes in 02, they didn’t bother to wrap the pipes to save heat because it was considered too expensive. Now when we repipe the whole building in a couple years, I expect they will cut corners on the peipe wrapping then too. Natural gas is too cheap I guess.

    [JR: No, the price, while important, is fundamentally a secondary issue when it comes to efficiency. We underinvest in efficiency no matter what the energy prices because of market barriers, many of which the climate and clean energy bill address.]

  5. Phil Eisner says:

    I don’t get these”market barriers.” When I worked at Exxon Research and Engineering in the ’70s and ’80s we made the refineries as energy efficient as cost allowed. I am sure Exxon and the other oil companies as well as chemical companies continue to do that. Residences and municipal buildings all over the nation can use thermostats and can insulate; insulation use is energy cost sensitive. Energy costs determine the purchase of more energy efficient appliances. In what way do market forces, other than the cost of energy, affect government buildings, and government operation? What about automobiles? Everyone would switch to more energy efficient cars far more quickly if gasoline costs were much higher.

    I agree with the other bloggers. We need far more PR and advertising for energy efficiency. Much of the choicest low-hanging fruit is yet to be plucked.

  6. Though my energy efficiency proposals are a bit unusual for the likes of Joe Romm I think we agree in general that there is real, low hanging fruit.

    However, who needs energy efficiency when we live in a world of fairyland possibilities?

    I show with profound shame in my state and public utility company the following link:

    When my dollars are used by my power company and my state (California — not so flush with cash right now) to play with Tinkerbell, I need to get down to some serious butt kicking and name taking.

    Jim Bullis, Miastrada Company (Down to earth solutions to real problems —

  7. Omega Centuri says:

    There are a lot of institutional barriers. Energy use is considered to be an operational overhead. Many organisations charge a fixed overhead charge to all departments, so individual departments see little incentive to try to save. And in many organisations energy saving costs would come from the capital equipment budget,which is usually closely scrutinised. So as a manager, would you rather spend your limited capital budget on energy saving stuff, which is invisible to the employees (and energy is not a direct part of your budget), or on fancy new gadgets.

  8. stewy says:

    I think there is a new game in commercial property due to potential high energy prices. commercial properties will be seen as a place to make money by weatherizing and installing solar energy. and selling it into the grid.

    if mr. romm is right, weatherizing could be a great way to extract hidden value out of a building. putting solar panels on your property could be the new investment. you just sell it directly to your businesses or into the grid.

    most commercials properties have big flat roofs with lots of space. could be the new real estate gold rush- prime flat roof real estate! low energy prices could keep and attract tenants.

  9. paulm says:

    Nancy it appears you are few. Interesting topic highlighted here…

    Men – not the only greens

    When it comes to climate change talks, women are an endangered species. But our input is crucial

    What is it about the issue of climate change that means women do not get involved? Undoubtedly, in the realm of decision-making, it is a failure of politics to catch up with 21st-century equality. In terms of campaigning, environmental journalism and grassroots activism, I suspect the reasons may be more complex, and stem from women themselves feeling shut out from a lot of very male-dominated debates.

    If we want our children and grandchildren to have a world worth enjoying, now is the time for women to stand up and be counted. Forget being indifferent to climate change – make some noise, be an environmental consumer, find out more about the issues, get interested, get involved. Rise up and make your voices known. The status quo is not good enough: women have a powerful and important place in tackling climate change, and know more than anyone the direct impact on families and communities across the world.

  10. Chris Winter says:

    Jim Bullis, I share your disappointment.

    “If completed by 2016, the project would deliver an average of 850 gigawatt hours (“GWh”) for the first year of the term, and 1,700 GWh per year over the remaining term of the PPA, which would contribute significantly toward PG&E’s RPS goals after 2016.”

    Solaren cannot be serious. There’s no way they can get any kind of commercial-size solar power plant into space by 2016 — let alone one capable of producing 200MW with 97% availability. And that’s with the space shuttle remaining in operation till then, which it won’t. I hope they’re not counting on using the Ares V launcher.

    They’d be very lucky to orbit a proof-of-concept prototype, something that would deliver tens of kilowatts on a good day.

    I am a proponent of Space Solar Power. But this overambitious project is just a waste of time and money.

  11. Chris Winter,

    A proof of concept has to relate to a meaningful concept.

    The cost for even a “tens of kilowatts” system would be enormous and scaling this up by a factor of several millions fails to make a shred of sense to me.

    There seems to be a serious problem with decimal points.

  12. Chris Winter says:


    I was thinking only in terms of launch capability. Say the prototype had solar arrays sized to deliver 100kW of power. The International Space Station produces only 10 percent more, and it uses eight arrays each 112 by 39 feet. The space shuttle can carry just one array per flight. Thus there seems little chance of launching even such a small SSP prototype by 2016.

  13. Chris, I understand and there are always surprises, but it seems we should be working on the easier things that can actually work without a lot of hoped for new breakthroughs.

  14. An even simpler solution would be to impose a 30 mph speed limit. think about that compared to “powersat.”

    From time to time I take note that I am not king of the world. On one such occasion I realized that a 30 mph world was not going to happen, even if it would mean many of the world’s biggest problems were solved.

    Then I thought some more about what is important in life and remembered all the waste of my time from sitting in traffic. As I thought about this I realized that this lost time took away from home and work time and thus had a permanent damaging effect on overall quality of life.

    Thinking about rearranging the way we live and work, and again noting my lack of authority, I concluded that it would be better to go along with the way people choose to live, but just try to make it work better.

    So given that we choose to live in work in the most distributed possible way, what can be done to improve things.

    Not being especially successful at making a new kind of engine, I looked at ways to make travel more efficient, with the advantages of the motorcycle or bicycles in mind. Not being sufficiently sturdy of mind to handle the site of motorcyclists and bicyclists lying mangled on the road, I also set myself the requirement that riders be protected, at least as well as if they were in cars.

    So I found that it was possible to make a narrow vehicle that would use less room on the road and in parking lots, but still had the stability of cars. That seemed interesting, especially when noting that it would push half as much air as a conventional car. Noting also that most cars on the road were burdened to carry an empty right front seat, this seemed like progress. I assumed that aerodynamic shaping would be about the same as with cars.

    Having some glancing familiarity with aerodynamics and still having my college text on the subject, I was reminded of the airship which has a drag coefficient of .05. When fitting this onto the stabilizing system, the advantage of tandem seating became clear. Not only was it necessary to elevate the airship above the road, a cylindrical shape was important. If it was required to fit in an empty front seat, the whole thing gets very ungainly, and also fails at my original narrow vehicle requirement. Of course the whole thing would have a drag coefficient somewhat higher than .05, even though the free flow aerodynamic requirement was approximately achieved.

    Surprise, what came out was an electric car, because putting in a mechanical drive train made it hard to keep the wheel part small. I then received punishing criticism for suggesting a car that would aggravate global warming, since it was clear that the marginal response to this new machine would be to increase power production from coal. All I could offer in defense was that only about a tenth as much energy was required compared to cars as we now know them, maybe about a fourth that of the Prius.

    Of course there would be the long trip problem, even though the batteries for the narrow car would carry it for most daily use. So a very small engine-generator seemed inevitable, and it looked like about 12 hp would do for the engine, and still get 80 mph on a steady basis.

    Still chafing under criticism for using electricity, I found it might be a compensation if this small engine-generator could get a second use as an electric generator to charge the batteries at night. Of course there is the discharged heat in exhaust and coolant so why not run that into the house that is probably nearby where the vehicle is parked at night. The 12 hp means that the amount of heat would be somewhat comparable to the heat produced by burning natural gas in many households. If done right, this can mean a system efficiency of 100%, and the engine-generator is already sitting in the car, so the power equipment is approximately free. Once the car batteries, why not use whatever time remains to run the household electricity needs, and if that need is filled, how about selling it back to the grid — like with solar only at night. We already have the infrastructure to get natural gas as an alternate fuel to the house and it would be simple to get it to the car.

    You guys can do the math, but it looks like people could still get around fast with comfort and safety. Maybe 90% of the energy needed for personal transportation would be cut, and a fair amount of electric power could be produced at a system efficiency far better than that of most central power plants.

    Thus, quite a lot could be accomplished for very little cost. Try to beat that with plug-ins, solar, wind, or nuclear. It probably won’t fix everyting, but it seems like a good start.

    Maybe you can see why “powersat” should not get in the way?

  15. Chris Winter says:

    Mike Strong wrote (in part) “Maybe you can see why “powersat” should not get in the way?”

    Maybe you can see that I’m in full agreement with you that the Solaren project is bogus?

    When I say I’m a proponent of Solar Power Satellites, I don’t mean we should start building them right now. Certainly learning to use energy more efficiently should be our first goal. Vehicle redesigns such as you propose can be an important part of that. (But beware of claiming system efficiencies of 100 percent.)

    However, I do think powersats will have an important role at some future date. I would like to see a small pilot project launched, when we have the launch capability to spare — which won’t be for some years. I feel the same way about nuclear power: it is a promising technology that needs much more development before it can be more widely used.

  16. Chris Winter,

    Who the heck is Mike Strong? Does he talk too much? Well, what would you have me cut out?

    Dean Kamen (Segway inventor) used the words, “darn near 100%” for cogeneration

    I agree that 100% won’t happen, but getting close is possible. Ultimately there will be some heat going up the chimney, but if it is the same with cogen as with the previously used natural gas systems, this can be defined as near 100% system efficiency. That had to be what Dean Kamen meant. But the definition has to be clear.

    I get it that you are not advocating powersat at this time. But you go on to put it on the list of future possibilities along with Nuclear. Ok to put it on the list but I would put it much further out in time.