Tag Archives: science

Use Less with Smarter Controls

In general, to reduce the footprint of a resource I look at the following strategies:

Smarter control is really a means to reduce demand or increase efficiency, but I like calling it out as it forces me to think of new areas of improvement. Smart controls avoid the use of resources when they are not needed because of real-time environmental conditions, they allow remote or automatic control, give you more fine-grained options on how to use a resource, and can even learn your behaviors and nudge you into less demand. The difference between a control and just a sensor/meter is that it does stuff.

Examples of some controls I have installed:

Gas & Electricity: Nest Programmable Thermostat

Nest Controllable Thermostat

Nest Thermostat

This is the energetic rockstar of my house, and a design beacon for the growing industry of smart controllers. Based on my data, I can attribute an approximate 20% on heating gas savings this last winter to this device alone. It has been the item with the highest energetic ROI-per-dollar in my house since. The Nest thermostat allows me to control my heating remotely via my phone, learns common patterns, turns of unnecessary heating, and nudges my behavior via little ‘green leaf’ icons and monthly points I can accumulate, gamefying my energy conservation. It’s worked so well it will get a bunch of blog posts on its own.
Nest’s website

See the Nest thermostat and reviews on Amazon.

Electricity: Belkin Conserve Socket with Energy-Saving Outlet

Belkin Conserve Socket with Energy-Saving OutletThis smart power strip senses if a ‘master’ outlet is being used, and if not, shuts off the power to most other outlets. I use this strip  to reduce “phantom draw” from peripheral devices around my computer, for example. USB Hubs, speakers, and other accessories are all plugged into the secondary/slave plugs. When I take my laptop away or it is not drawing power from the source, all these devices loose their source power within a few seconds.

Electricity: Belkin Conserve Outlet with Timer

This small plug adapter from Belkin has a built-in timer that can be set to 1/2, 3 or 6 hours. Press the button, and the outlet will deliver power for that long. It’s that simple. I use this for:

  • My external monitors. In addition to the power strip above, it just turns all of them off every 3 hours. If I’m in the middle of something I just click them back on. The timer also takes care of external monitors when the computers’ driver for some reason or other forgets putting them to sleep
  • A power strip that feeds to electronics I rarely use but for some reason tend to stay on like printers.
  • Our home theater assembly. After 3 hours, it turns all the gear off (except a network switch and a Roku, which are fanless solid-state devices that draw a few watts combined combined). I also plugged the Xbox is also on a non-timed outlet, for long downloads to continue independently, but the Xbox is pretty good about turning itself off when it should.

Water: Timed/Regulated Watering

Solenoids (electric faucets) controlling outdoor irrigation

Solenoids (electric faucets) controlling outdoor irrigation.

I’m on the fence on this one, but I’ll include it as it touches upon using smarter controls for water conservation.

I am not a fan of using mains water for irrigation and I believe automated timers have done more harm than good in conserving water (I haven’t seen data either way, but it’s a strong hunch), even with the growing popularity of drip irrigation. Anyways, I recently wired some solenoids (water taps that can be controlled via electricity, in this case 24v) on a couple of irrigation lines and hooked them up to a timer device. It stays off and we use it as a manually activated timer on seldom occasions. If I could hook it up to soil humidity sensors I would feel better about leaving them in automatic. I guess this “Smart control” isn’t so smart yet. Maybe it will be an Arduino project for a rainy weekend to improve this. It rains so often here that capturing some of that would make the most sense.

Another example of a smart control for water conservation would be those simple toilet-flushing buttons that give you two options to use more or less water based on what needs to be flushed. It’s simple but I haven’t installed these yet.

Conclusion

Smart controls can help us reduce consumption and increase efficiency. Sometimes they may seem expensive but if you make sure to  keep measuring your gains you may be surprised! There are many other ways to reduce, reuse and conserve resources that don’t require you to buy anything, but these controls are an example of technology playing a good role in helping improve our lives and the planet.

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More Details on PSE Green Power

I got a great piece of feedback from Heather Mulligan, PSE Green Power Market Manager, about how the extra cost of the Puget Sound Energy Green Power program is applied to help the financing of new stations. She says:

The extra cost is used to purchase Renewable Energy Credits (RECs), which represent 1 MWH of actual energy production. RECs place a monetary value on the environmental attributes associated with renewable energy generation, thus making it easier for the developer to get the necessary funding to build their project. So in that sense, RECs do make it easier to get the startup capital needed, which does help to encourage the creation of more small & renewable generation stations.

– Heather Mulligan, PSE Green Power Market Manager

What is a REC?

After researching the good and bad side of the REC system, I came to the conclusion that it is just a token-based market for “green Megawatt-hours”. Trying to put it simply:

  • If I put up a wind generator, and I generate 1 megawatt for 1 hour, I have two things I can sell – a megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity, and a REC, which is worth some cash (I estimate around $10 per REC).
  • PSE sells electricity to people. They want more of it. So PSE buys my megawatt.
  • Some people want “green power” so they also “buy” RECs from PSE which are worth a bit of cash.
  • PSE has to buy a REC from my mini-utility to meet these people’s demand, or fail audits.
  • By using the RECs (and the associated auditing that comes with this ‘virtual good”), the consumers can say “I want renewable electricity” – and have to put their money where their mouth is – and PSE has to get them from somewhere.
This great diagram from BEF explains the flow:
How a Renewable Energy Certificate (REC) Works (by B-E-F.org)

How a Renewable Energy Certificate (REC) Works. See the great explanation at http://www.b-e-f.org/business/products/recs/

Common misconceptions

Some folks claim this distorts the market. That is true. But the market is already VERY distorted as it is: with externalized costs (which every non-renewable generator has tons of), large R&D and supply-chain subsidies (which large nuclear, hydro, etc. projects have), and a central controlling distribution entity consumers can’t choose (which almost every utility company is). With RECs I have a way to express my demand, so for me it removes some net distortion.

I also see claims that purchasing RECs are a way to offset your carbon footprint. RECs are not carbon-reduction tokens. They are a token of demand of renewable electricity, and I believe you can’t buy RECs beyond the amount of Megawatt-hour you consume. In addition, some renewable energy sources are still carbon positive (that is, they still throw some previously captured carbon into the atmosphere, even if at lesser rates and from smarter sources than, say, coal). Therefore buying RECs won’t offset the emissions of your car.

Sign up!

I know this sounds like an ad – it is not- but there are few things that you can do that are as smart, cheap and easy to reduce your energy footprint as signing up for the PSE Green Power energy.

Just log in here: http://pse.com/savingsandenergycenter/GreenPower/Pages/For-Homes.aspx#form

and choose 100 percent. If you don’t do it, I would love to understand why, and how you feel about it.