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Two East Coast Cities Set Sights On Energy Efficiency

By Ruthie Nachmany

When Audrey Zibelman paints a picture of what an energy-efficient city might look like, she imagines a young woman, fresh out of college, who has come to Zibelman's home city of Philadelphia for her first job. In a rush to get to work one morning, the woman remembers too late that she left the lights on in her apartment—but that's no problem: she can use her iPhone app to switch the lights off remotely. She hops on a commuter train that runs on electricity; every time it stops, an on-board system recaptures some of the train's energy of motion, much like a Prius does. When she gets off the train, she gets a text message from the transport company, thanking her for saving energy. As she enters her new office in a LEED-certified energy efficient building, the lights turn on automatically to her preset preference (they'll turn off automatically when she leaves the room), and the temperature automatically sets to her comfort. She looks out the window at the skyline, dominated by other green buildings. She thinks to herself, “This is a cool city.”

At a recent Philadelphia conference on improving energy efficiency in America's cities, presenters discussed how personalizing power, with iPhone apps for example, will help reduce energy consumption. Credit: Yutaka Tsutano/flickr. 

Zibelman painted her picture of the near future again last month, when she spoke at the America’s Sustainable Future conference in Philadelphia. Zibelman is the founder and CEO of Viridity Energy, a company that helps people and businesses increase their energy efficiency. Her goal was to begin a conversation among local energy innovators about how their community is trying to get smart about...


Will Natural Gas Save Us from Climate Change?

The International Energy Agency issued a new report today that asks, and then answers, this question: "Are We Entering a Golden Age of Natural Gas?" You can download the 131-page document if you like, but the bottom line is (spoiler alert!): yes. However, it's important to understand that the authors' analysis is based on a set of assumptions that may or may not end up being true.

But assuming they're right, what does "golden age" really mean in this context? If you think it means we're going to enter some sort of golden age because of natural gas, think again. What the report actually says is that natural gas itself may about to experience a golden age — meaning we could be using more of it in the next few decades than we do now. By 2035, it says, natural gas could make up 25 percent of the world's energy supply. Natural gas already makes up 21 percent of our energy mix, so the difference between the upcoming golden age and the present age might not look all that significant.

A worker checks the valve of a gas pipe at a natural gas plant in Suining, in southwest China's Sichuan province on November 15, 2010. Credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images.

Still, that would represent a 50 percent increase in how much natural gas the world consumes (it doesn't change the overall percentage much because there will be growth in other energy sources as well). So it's good news if you're in the natural-gas business. There are a couple of reasons why natural gas might gain in market share compared to other energy sources. First, there's lots of it, and, unlike oil, it's spread relatively evenly around the world. Second, new drilling tec...


Interactive Shows Earthquake Risks to America’s Nuclear Power Plants

In their new June 2011 issue, Scientific American magazine has published a story investigating the safety of the newest generation of nuclear power plants (a digital subscription is required for access). To accompany the story, the online team has produced a new interactive graphic available to everyone that pinpoints each of the 104 nuclear reactors across the United States (and the locations of 22 proposed new reactors).

A new Scientific American interactive graphic shows the location of U.S. nuclear reactors overlaid with areas of earthquake risk. Credit: Scientific American.

Similar to the map Climate Central’s David Kroodsma produced in March 2011, immediately following the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi facility in Japan, this new map compares the location of American plants to regions of high earthquake risk (Climate Central's interactive tracked the location of previous earthquakes).

Compiling reactor data from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and seismic hazard data from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the SciAm graphic shows that there is already a handful of U.S. nuclear power plants located in earthquake-prone areas of the country. The threats aren't just to reactors in California and Washington State; some located in South Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri are also along the fringe of seismically active regions. 

Earthquakes pose low probability but high consequence risks for American nuclear power plants — after all, scientists can’t always anticipate in advance when tremors will happen and how strong they will be. However, reactors built near fault lines are co...


Exploring Fuel Efficiency: How Much Are You Spending on Gas?

By David Kroodsma

As the Memorial Day Weekend approaches, many of us are planning road trips — according to the American Automobile Association (AAA), over 30 million Americans will get in their personal vehicles for a weekend get-away, with many driving hundreds of miles.

Although gas prices have dropped slightly during the past few weeks, they are still a dollar per gallon higher than they were one year ago at this time. These prices have made many of us think hard about the efficiency of our vehicles — how much is it costing us to drive?

We have developed a tool to help you determine the costs of driving your car or truck, including how much carbon dioxide (CO2) your vehicle produces. Carbon dioxide is a key greenhouse gas that is contributing to global warming. Using the tool below, select your state, your car’s gas mileage, and how many miles you drive in a typical year (default values are set to national averages).

This widget — which you are welcome to embed on your webpage — also displays the CO2 emissions that result from a particular amount of driving. Gas price data are automatically updated daily from the AAA.


Don’t know how many miles you drive in a year?
If you don’t know, simply ask yourself if you drive more or less than the average American driver. The average passenger car in the U.S. travels about 10,000 miles per year, a bit less than two round-trips from New York City to Los Angeles. Adjust this number up or down depending on how much...


To Save Energy, Utilities Tap into Our Competitive Instincts

When it comes to energy conservation, our competitive instincts to “keep up with the Joneses” could be a big help. A project underway in my California neighborhood, for example, is employing insights from behavioral psychologists to encourage residents to save energy.

Motivated by energy efficiency goals set by the federal, state, and local governments, the City of Palo Alto, Calif. recently began including Home Energy Reports in residential utility bills. Each report compares a household’s energy use with their 100 closest neighbors in homes of similar sizes, and also provides targeted energy conservation tips.

Invented and implemented by the energy efficiency and smart-grid software company OPOWER, this technique is just one example of the ways that behavioral psychologists are collaborating with utility companies in real-world experiments to understand how information and messaging can affect human behavior.

My personal experience with OPOWER’s approach has been powerful. In my family’s first electric bill, we ranked as the 23rd-most-efficient household in the neighborhood, based on the previous month’s electricity and natural gas use. My husband called me over to look at the one smiley face, and our grade of “Good”, as judged by OPOWER.

Within seconds, I knew one thing and one thing only: We needed to be “Great.”

My first energy report. It shows that my household used less electricity than most in our neighborhood, but our natural gas use was about average. My suspicion was that our old house was letting the gas-generated heat leak right out of the windows and floorboards.

I ran out to the garage and got the bag with our caulking gun — the bag that had sat unopened in the garage for the last two years...



Fewer Freezing Nights The average date of the last spring freeze is shifting earlier in the year, extending the pollen and growing season.

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