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 how it consumes electricity.

The take-away message: If people have control over their own energy consumption — and if the right incentives are in place — they're likely to become more efficient. For example, if energy costs are cheaper in the middle of the night, when electricity demand is low, people might program their dishwasher to run at that time. During the summer, they can choose to pre-cool their house with air conditioners running through the night, instead of the middle of the afternoon, when energy costs are high. If people like the young woman in Zibelman's vision can strategize with their friends about how to save money by using electricity smartly, this will help the entire system be more efficient. And many of the conference attendees agreed that in the not-too-distant future, smartphone apps are going to help people coordinate these more energy-efficient activities. 

Just one week after the Philadelphia conference, New York City hosted a similar event, the “Sustainability Media Roundtable on Effective Energy Management,” sponsored by SAP, another company helping businesses become more energy efficient. In New York, cities were again the hot topic —  but this time a different idea floated to the surface. In this conversation, the message was, “if you build it they will come.” In other words, cities need to install the right infrastructure so people don’t have to think about whether they are being more efficient. As Bruce Katz from Brookings Institution put it, “in the absence of federal leadership, cities give us the best hope that the U.S. can move forward [with energy efficiency].”

At another conference about increasing energy efficiency, presenters agreed that cities must act first, installing infrastructure like electric vehicle charging stations, instead of waiting for individuals to voluntarily change their energy habits. Credit: Portland General Electric/flickr. 

Two weeks, two cities, and two different messages on how to improve energy efficiency in America’s cities. What gives?

Both conferences were held on the heels of President Obama’s funding announcement of money for a more efficient electrical grid for the country, one that can store intermittent wind and solar energy and be less vulnerable to blackouts during peak times: a smart grid. Improving America’s energy efficiency is one way to reduce greenhouse gases that are emitted when coal and gas are burned to generate electricity.

But the recent flurry of interest isn’t just connected to federal stimulus money. It seems that the time is right, and the technology is ready, for a revolution in how we consume electricity. And it's about time for an update in the electrical system. If Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, were alive, he wouldn't recognize our current phone system: Blackberries, iPhones, and cellphone culture are totally unlike the early days of phone communication. On the other hand, Thomas Edison could look around today, and everything would look pretty familiar. Much of our electrical system is shockingly similar to what it was a hundred years ago.  

As our energy grid gets updated, it's possible that mobile technolgy will actually help with the transformation — like the smartphone app in Zibelman's vignette, for example. This kind of app isn't available yet, but the idea of a personalized energy system captured the spirit of the Philadelphia conference.

According to the consensus out of Philadelphia, people that want to save money on their electricity bill are going to stimulate a change in the system. As long as consumers are empowered, they will be intelligent enough to save money with new technology. And this is exactly how Viridity describes itself – enabling consumers to save money. 

By contrast, the most prominent idea in New York was that cities and companies should help choose the best new system, in case individuals don't make the first move. For example, cities might decide to build electric-car charging stations even if most people aren’t yet ready to invest in a Chevy Volt or a Nissan Leaf. And cities should, agreed many particiapants, be scoping out the best spots for solar panels, instead of waiting for individual homeowners to come asking for zoning approval.

In reality, the smart grid that the Obama administration recently envisioned will probably need a bit of both approaches to work. Until people feel like they can take control and save money by being more energy efficient, cities can help out by making some big choices for everyone. But when people can really personalize their energy use, and see how much they are contributing to a smarter electrical system for everyone, then its possible that Zibelman's portrait of a young women living in a energy efficient city won't stay fictional for long.

Ruthie Nachmany is an intern at Climate Central. She is currently attending Princeton University, studying anthropology and film.