Wasting energy

The lack of efficiency in the energy cycle

Cheap and abundant fossil fuels have cemented bad energy habits, especially in rich countries. Most of our methods of producing, distributing and using energy are massively inefficient.

These inefficiencies run across all production and use of energy, from the power plants to our everyday use of cars, heating and cooling systems, air travel and stand-by power.

Power plants

Power plants typically only turn about 30% of the energy input into usable electricity.

We are losing up to 75 % of the energy in the fuel at the start of the process. Energy companies could do much better – combining power and heat production can lift efficiency to over 70%.

But power producers insist on working to old models – the production of large quantities of energy in one plant far from where people live. Many of the new plants that are proposed now will remain below 40% efficiency – but power producers still try to persuade us that this is good. Is wasting 60% really what we want?

Niederaußem in Germany is the 3rd worst performing power station in Europe based on WWF's Dirty 30 ... / ©: Richard Brand / Flickr.com
Niederaußem in Germany is the 3rd worst performing power station in Europe based on WWF's Dirty 30 report (2007). The global power sector is the biggest climate polluter, being responsible for 37% of all man-made carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.
© Richard Brand / Flickr.com

Cars

An average car emits approximately 3 times its weight in CO2 per year*.

And it is typically used to take ONE person to work and back – exceeding the weight of an 80 kg person 37.5 times. Of course, light-weight solutions exist which minimise fuel use. Check the proposals from Rocky Mountain Institute
 

* A car with a fuel consumption of around 7.8 litres/100 km (36 miles per gallon) travelling 16,000 km (10,000 miles) per year emits almost 3 tonnes (6,500 lbs) of CO2 per year.

 / ©: WWF-Canon / Edward Parker
Cars
© WWF-Canon / Edward Parker

Heating and cooling

These systems are some of the biggest culprits when it comes to wasting energy.

How often have you seen the windows open in a house that was overheated? The equivalent exists in the tropics where people cool their places down to 20°C and then open the windows because they are freezing.

Construction can help in a big way – near-to-zero energy homes and offices are possible at an economic scale. But it is also personal habit. Even simple things like choosing to wear a sweater rather than turning up the heating can help.

Air conditioning units on a high rise building. / ©: NiCoLaS LeViNToN
Air conditioning units on a high rise building.
© NiCoLaS LeViNToN

Flying

Airlines and their industry have been hit by rising oil prices.The industry is aware of the danger this poses to its profitability and is seeking to develop more efficient planes which can travel further.

However, the fact is that flying is inefficient in principle, resulting in much higher energy use and much higher CO2 emissions than any other form of travel. The best advice is simply not to fly – travel by other means wherever possible.
Air travel is a high source of carbon dioxide emissions.  / ©: Stefan Jansson
Air travel is a high source of carbon dioxide emissions.
© Stefan Jansson

You think they are switched off. But they are consuming power.

Appliances left on stand-by are still using power, which costs you money and continues to pump CO2 ... / ©: iStockphoto
Appliances left on stand-by are still using power, which costs you money and continues to pump CO2 into the atmosphere.
© iStockphoto
Walk round your house at night and count the little red lights - on the TV and its set-top box, the CD player, the PC, your "shower toilet" if you're in Japan, your Minitel communications systems if you're in France, the charger for your electrified fence if you're an Australian farmer.

All these appliances are in "standby" mode - not really doing anything useful, except waiting to spring into life instantly.

For some (but only some) products like printers and copiers, standby can be efficient, decreasing the total energy the device consumes. For others, it's just waste.

Would you believe...

In a detailed study in 2001, the International Energy Agency (IEA) found that from 3% (Switzerland) to a scarcely credible 13% (Australia) of residential electricity used in OECD countries was standby.

"I was amazed when I first learned the dimensions of standby power," said Robert Priddle, IEA executive director. "In my own home, appliances that I thought were 'off' were actually consuming considerable power."

Consumer action could close 24 coal-fired power stations

We could close at least 24 coal-fired power stations, if consumers in all industrialised countries unplugged chargers and switched off their domestic appliances instead of putting them on stand-by.

The energy waste could easily be reduced if we use our energy more efficiently. Learn how you can be more energy efficient at home.

Infographic: Vampire Energy from GOOD

...enough energy is wasted by standby losses in the United States to run all of the homes on the continent of Australia, and then some.

Joe Schwartz, homepower.com

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