A Nega-What?

In the five months since he changed the light bulbs, he’s saved over $1000 cumulatively compared to the previous year’s power bill. Those 28 LED bulbs cost him less than $200.

Most environmentalists care A LOT about energy. Not all of us, admittedly. Some might focus narrowly on biodiversity loss, clean water or land conservation, sparing few thoughts for energy. Which is just fine, since those causes are important too.

Energy, however, tends to be a particularly big deal. Generating the energy we need to power our lives has a significant environmental footprint. In addition to the carbon dioxide generated by burning fossil fuels, the extraction, transportation, and refining of them causes environmental harm. This fact is why most environmentalists, regardless of their particular priorities, tend to be strong advocates for renewable energy.

So what is the best type of renewable energy? We’ve got utility-scale photovoltaics, concentrated solar, rooftop solar, onshore wind, offshore wind, geothermal, biomass, biofuels, hydroelectricity, tidal power, hydrogen fuel cells, piezoelectricity and more. Each has benefits and drawbacks, so it’s a difficult (if not impossible) question to answer.

That said, there’s one type of energy that is often left off renewable energy lists, though it shouldn’t be. Amory Lovins, a good friend of my grandfather’s, has called it “negawatt” energy. You might know it better by the terms “energy efficiency” and “energy conservation.”

Now, you might be thinking that renewable energy and energy efficiency/conservation don’t belong in the same category. After all, one focuses on generating energy while the other focuses on not needing to generate energy. Arguably, they are opposites.

In actuality though, they are functional equivalents. From an environmental standpoint, not using a watt is essentially as good as generating that watt renewably. Both are equally good at mitigating the consumption of fossil fuels. And from a practical standpoint, we don’t really care if we use one or one thousand watts, so long as all of our stuff works.

Well……that’s not quite true. We care to the extent that we have to pay for that energy. Which is where negawatts really shine, since they offer some of the best bang-for-your-buck renewable energy investments available. Let me give you an example.

I’ve written about Taproom Coffee before, my local beer and coffee joint. If you’re in the Atlanta area and you haven’t visited the shop, it’s worth the trip. Beyond simply serving quality drinks, the shop also has a cool ambience, which partly stems from the 28 Edison-style light bulbs hanging from the ceiling.

Back in September, the owner decided to replace all those incandescent bulbs with LED equivalents (yes, Edison-style LED bulbs do exist). Up to that point in 2016, his power bill every month was 3-21% more expensive than it was in the same month in 2015. Suddenly though, his 2016 September bill was 26% less than his 2015 September bill. October then saw 23% savings, followed by 18% in November, 25% in December and 19% last month.

In the five months since he changed the light bulbs, he’s saved over $1000 cumulatively compared to the previous year’s power bill. Those 28 LED bulbs cost him less than $200.

Admittedly, the benefits don’t come only from LEDs using less energy to create light. In addition, LED bulbs create less heat than incandescent bulbs, which means the air conditioner doesn’t have to work as hard to keep Taproom cool. That’s actually where the primary savings came from, which is one of the pleasant surprises of negawatts – they can generate cascading benefits.

So how about you? Are you a fan of renewable energy? Then go find some negawatts and make a difference, both for the world and your wallet.