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Energy Pyramids: Useful Concepts, Not More Pyramid Schemes

February 8, 2010 - 2:40pm

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At a December holiday party, the host handed me a newspaper clipping and asked me what I thought of the energy pyramid mentioned in the article. I hadn't read the article, so I told him I would read it and get back to him. Of course, when I found time to look into it, I didn't have the article with me. So I decided to do a little research on energy pyramids on the internet. It turns out that I found several variations on the theme, including the one mentioned in the article handed to me by my friend and neighbor, Larry.

The Energy Use Pyramid, featured in the Washington Post article Larry asked about, was designed by architects Peter Pfeiffer and Betsy del Monte. It's a valuable resource, especially for new building design. It clearly shows that most of the emphasis should be placed on design elements that use no power at all, such as solar orientation and tight building construction, because these are often the most cost-effective solutions. In some cases, such as building orientation, the design feature may cost little or nothing at all.

The next emphasis should be placed on using power efficiently, or in other words, selecting energy-efficient equipment and methods. Although purchasing appliances with higher energy efficiencies or prescribing methods that cut down on energy use may cost more initially, it pays off in the long term. Then, and only then, should you emphasize producing your own power.

In other words, incorporating solar energy or wind energy into your home makes sense only after maximizing the efficiency of your home. Solar and wind energy currently cost more than conventional grid electricity except under some uncommon circumstances. Up to a certain high level of efficiency, eliminating the need for kilowatt-hours of electricity or British thermal units (Btu) of heat typically costs less than supplying that same amount electricity or heat with solar or wind energy.

The Florida Solar Energy Center developed the Energy Policy Pyramid© to help decision makers focus on cost-effective energy policies. It's similar to the Energy Use Pyramid, but with a broader focus and a different audience.

The utility company Minnesota Power developed The Pyramid of CONSERVATION—residential version to help its electric customers conserve energy. It's useful not only for designing new homes but also for improving the energy performance of existing homes.

This energy pyramid targets specific areas you can tackle based on cost and complexity, helping you prioritize. It identifies precise actions, areas of the home, and appliances to target and classifies them into 10 categories, with the easiest and least expensive on the bottom of the pyramid. Start at the bottom and work your way up the pyramid, as time and finances allow.

The Pyramid of CONSERVATION, residential version courtesy of: Minnesota Power

Sorry, guys. If you're looking for ammunition to convince your wife to install those "sexy" solar panels or wind turbines on your rooftop, look elsewhere. But if you're trying to find out which energy efficiency/conservation step to take next or need help convincing your spouse it makes sense, then these may help. Also, I'm sure there are many other handy energy pyramids out there on the internet.

So, Larry, if you're reading this: Yes, I think the Energy Use Pyramid is a helpful tool. So are some other energy pyramids. Hmmm, why not use an energy pyramid myself when explaining which actions to take next to cut down on energy waste?

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