THE IN-AGAIN TERM “NEGAWATT” CONJURES ELECTRO-DYNAMIC VISIONS of both simple solutions that hearken back to pre-combustible-engine horse-and-buggy times and complex cyclopean constructs more aligned with sci-fi pie-in-the-sky dreams of a better, brighter tomorrow. Both visions are valid, both consider energy conservation from a near and far view, that is, a personal and societal perspective, and both are by no means mutually exclusive.
Considered one way, as Planet Green relates, “the greenest power of all is the Negawatt—the power you don’t use. The first thing you should be doing is just doing less, investing in CFL and LED lighting, turning off switches, junking your fridge if it is older than 10 years, and hanging your laundry on a line.”
Another way has it, and this from Thomas Friedman’s “The Energy Internet: When IT Meets ET” chapter of Hot, Flat, and Crowded, is a future realization of the “E.C.E.” (Energy-Climate Era) through a vast, interconnected, back-and-forth smart grid—this is the grandiose view from space, where “an Energy Internet would enable you, me, and your next-door neighbor to do extraordinary things by way of saving energy [negawatt = a unit of energy saved] and using clean power efficiently, and do them around the clock, all the time, whether or not you’re thinking about it.” This is also where individuals, organizations both public and private, big business and government(s) will have to agree on an executable plan (or many), strategy and tactics that efficaciously move forward such a grid, not get tied up in endless red tape, petty squabbling and boardroom fisticuffs that lead to insurmountable impasse and failure.
HERE’S A NEGAWATT DEFINITION I LIKE A LOT: “A negawatt is in essence a negative megawatt, in that it is a megawatt of power that was not required to be produced or expended. In other words, it is a unit of energy saved that would have otherwise not only been made but also used. Perhaps the simplest way to define it is that a negawatt is a measure of energy efficiency. When less power is consumed, the demand for energy decreases.” (Definition from wiseGEEK.)
It seems so commonsensical (less consumed = decreased demand), and ultimately it is, but in a world of constant energy-conservation fission (inherent inefficiencies, laziness, systemic breakdowns, etc.) and ingrained habits of oblivious waste, slippage is commonplace and resultantly energy consumption continues its inexorable climb. The U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts “moderate” 14 percent energy-consumption growth between 2008 and 2035, with CO2 continuing its annual climb at 0.3 percent—unacceptable if we want to return to anything like 350 ppm and curb greenhouse gases.
Amory Lovins of Rocky Mountain Institute, who is credited with coining the term negawatt (“The NegaWatt Revolution: Solving the CO2 Problem” keynote address at the Green Energy Conference, Montreal, 1989), pointed out how lighting represents a great arena to implement “negawatt savings.” “Think of such a compact [CFL] bulb,” Lovins wrote, “with 14 watts replacing 75, as a 61 negawatt power plant. By substituting 14 watts for 75 watts, you are sending 61 unused watts—or negawatts—back to Hydro, who can sell the electricity saved to someone else without having to make it all over again.”
Now simply extrapolate Lovins’ idea to the current-administration-supported smart energy grid (or Energy Internet, as Friedman would have it) or any number of other forward-thinking applications that connect efficiency and savings in one place by moving that saved or conserved energy to another place. Think of this high-tech smart grid as monitoring all electricity supply flowing into and through it while controlling consumer demand all the way to a granular level: household appliances, lighting, heating, air conditioning, electronic gadgets, etc. Storage (the use of reliable accumulators) is also critical here; think of being able to hold onto solar, geothermal, wind and other forms of energy for times of peak use.
“All actors of the sector,” Ludwig Karg, director of the Germany’s E-Energy, told TerraViva, “from the generators to the consumers, passing through the operators of the grid, must be linked to each other. Every device, every appliance at the consuming end shall be connected to all electricity providers’ regulating mechanism, as in a plug-and-play system, supported by smart meters, to monitor consumption and ponder supply and prices at any given moment, to constitute a smart grid.”
Devices and systems are being developed and built by companies like Comverge, EnerNoc and Echelon that let end users and consumers monitor and adjust electricity use in real time, Tom Raftery reported on the GreenMonk blog. Energy demand management, meanwhile, has opened up the scrutiny of thermostats (think HVAC), bringing diesel generators online and regulating consumption times (such as lighting, storage heaters and pre-cooling buildings in the morning prior to peak demand). “This is a whole new market which is about to open up,” Raftery wrote. “There are massive opportunities … for people to write software to manage this, to build the hardware to do this, and to aggregate NegaWatts for sale to utility companies.”
Ah, the negawatt: far less elusive than antimatter (with the exception of PET scans) or perhaps a “quantum-plated” alternate universe, but not a gimme by any stretch. And creating a vast interconnected grid—Friedman’s and others’ Energy Internet—is even more of a far-reaching Frankensteinian challenge. Let me close with a Friedman observation (again from Hot, Flat, and Crowded):
While many of the raw materials necessary to make this system a reality already exist in some form, it will not be easy to implement—no revolution is. But this is definitely not science fiction. So keep an open eye and an open mind, and remember what the late, great science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke famously observed: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Bring on the magic, then, for we have the collective knowhow, and let’s start reverse generating, if you will, those mighty, mighty negawatts.
Addendum: See Green America’s suggestions for “Investing in Green Energy.”