Making Progress on Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Discussions about international climate agreements and carbon taxes are at the center of the climate policy debate, but remain completely out of reach. Meanwhile, smaller scale incremental changes continue throughout the United States. Last week, we saw examples of two such changes reported in the New York Times. The first was a voluntary agreement to reduce energy waste in cable TV boxes. The second was an effort in California to utilize existing battery technology to store solar energy.
The cable box wastes an enormous amount of electricity. I first learned that from Luke Falk, an expert in energy efficiency who is a sustainability manager at the Related Companies. Luke also teaches energy efficiency in Columbia's Sustainability Management Program. I remembered how surprised I was when Luke first mentioned it, and now three years later, something is being done to alter the status quo. According to Matthew Wald of the New York Times:
"Generally, a DVR device consumes half as much electricity as a standard refrigerator and freezer. Under an earlier industry initiative, set-top boxes supplied after Jan. 1 will use 15 percent less than was typical in 2009. With the latest agreement, new ones will cut consumption by an additional 20 percent by 2017."
As Wald indicates, the problem is that the people who own the box, namely your cable company, do not pay the electricity bill in your home. They have no incentive to spend money on engineering to reduce the cable box's energy use. You, as the cable viewer do not actually own the box, and in all likelihood have no idea how much energy it uses. This creates a perfect formula for wasted energy.
Energy waste related to the separation between owners and users is not limited to cable boxes. If your landlord owns the central heating and air conditioning units of a building, but only pays to heat and cool common areas, he or she has little incentive to make a capital investment in a new energy efficient boiler or central air conditioner. Most of the savings from those investments are gained by tenants.
There are financial techniques that can be used to change the incentive structure, but they often require action by the government or collective action by those who are wasting energy that might be saved. One of the more interesting trends over the past decade in equipment and appliance engineering is the addition of energy efficiency to equipment design parameters. We have seen dramatic reductions in energy use by air conditioners, refrigerators, and some computers. When engineers are not directed to focus on energy efficiency they don't bother, but when they are directed to focus their brain power on saving energy the gains have been impressive.