TCS Daily

Bronx Cheers for Con Ed

By Herbert Inhaber - June 18, 2003 12:00 AM

Consolidated Edison, the supplier of electricity to New York City, recently announced plans to save electricity. The caps fly in the air, and "Huzzahs!" echo across the land.

As with most public announcements by large corporations, things aren't as simple as they first appear. In fact, the program may actually increase electricity use, rather than reduce it. Hold on to your caps for a bit.

Stephen F. Wood, vice president of engineering services, said, "Over the past several years, we have seen power use throughout our service area growing." How did this come about, when Con Ed has had various conservation programs in place for almost three decades? Needless to say, this wasn't mentioned in the press release. Ratepayers have been paying for those conservation programs, and exactly what they got for their money is buried in the bowels of Con Ed's headquarters.

Actually, New Yorkers are already among the best conservers of electricity in the entire country. This is not because of any particular virtues on their part. People in big cities tend to use less electricity than suburbanites. Their houses are smaller, and more of them live in apartments. Air conditioners for apartments are more efficient than those for a single house.

All of which brings us around to efficiency, which most people equate with energy and electricity efficiency. It isn't. Conservation implies a total reduction in energy or electricity use. Greater efficiency may or may not reduce total energy use.

Amory Lovins, the so-called energy guru, has promoted for years the concepts of "negawatts," the energy that is saved by various efficiency steps. The trouble is, there is no such thing. Next time you want to turn on your computer to read the latest pearls of wisdom from TCS, try plugging it in to the receptacle marked "negawatts." Your screen will remain blank. Any energy you or anybody else saves will soon be consumed by other energy and electricity uses.

Con Ed asks for proposals to increase lighting efficiency, presumably by substituting fluorescent for incandescent light bulbs. Anyone who has visited a hardware store in the last decade has seen tiny fluorescent bulbs - with similar threads so they can be substituted for the more familiar kind of bulbs.

The new bulbs, although more efficient than the old kind, suffer from two defects. First, they are much more expensive than the old ones. I can buy four incandescent bulbs for about a dollar when they are on sale, or 25 cents each. While the price of fluorescents varies, I have seen them sold for $5 to $10 each. You would have to run them for many years, if not forever, to save enough electricity to make them worthwhile.

A second problem is that people generally don't like fluorescents. How many of us have been in a house where there are fluorescents other than in the kitchen? Builders have known for decades that using fluorescents instead of the old kind of bulbs will save money. But nobody will buy a house that is lighted completely with the new bulbs. "Too much like an office" they will say, "Eight hours in an office lighted by fluorescents is enough."

The problem - if it can be said to be a problem - with greater efficiency is that it often leads to greater energy use. The prime example is autos. Years ago, the average miles per gallon for a car was about 13. Now it is about 22. If greater efficiency implies a reduction in energy use, then even allowing for population growth, the total amount of gasoline used should have gone down. Instead, it has risen. That is because the relative cost of driving a mile, compared to family income, has gone down, not up. Compared to income, it now costs about one-sixth of 1950 levels to drive a mile, taking into account greater auto efficiency. Economists, whether liberal or conservative, will tell you that if the cost of any commodity goes down compared to income, we will use more of it. I buy lots of strawberries in June, when they are cheap, and not many in January, when they are dear. The same principle applies to electricity and almost everything else.

Con Ed is not the only public utility pushing efficiency, usually with little or no effect on total electricity use. In Las Vegas, the local utility is buying old refrigerators for $30, presumably to junk them. But the program suffers from defects. The same scheme was tried in Britain a year or two ago, with disastrous effects. They collected tens of thousands of old fridges, but had no means to dispose of the insulation according to environmental rules. Newspapers showed pictures of "fridge mountains" awaiting disposal. Some kindly souls suggested dumping them into the North Sea to create artificial reefs for fish.

It is true that a replacement for old fridges would be more efficient, due primarily to better motors and more insulation. But newer models are almost always bigger than the old Philcos that the local utility hopes to haul away. Bigger means more electricity use. So it is unclear exactly how total energy savings will be when the shiny new fridge replaces the old grimy one.

Con Ed wants to improve its image as a caring corporation, naturally. But they would convince their ratepayers they were on the right track if they could demonstrate how much total energy use would come down as a result of their program. Certainly they haven't been able to demonstrate anything like this for the past three decades of electricity conservation attempts.

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