Is conservation the key to a green plant?

March 5, 2008
Paul Studebaker says doing more with less is the quickest step toward green.

You know renewable energy has become an economic rock star when Google gets involved. In case you missed it, back in November 2007, the virtual giant announced its “renewable energy cheaper than coal (

“Our goal is to produce 1 gigawatt of renewable energy capacity that is cheaper than coal,” said Larry Page, Google co-founder and president of products. “We are optimistic this can be done in years, not decades.” (One gigawatt can power a city the size of San Francisco.)

“If we meet this goal and large-scale renewable deployments are cheaper than coal, the world will have the option to meet a substantial portion of electricity needs from renewable sources and significantly reduce carbon emissions,” Page said. “We expect this would be a good business for us as well.”

Web surfing uses more power than most might realize. For example, rough calculations indicate that at 5 kWh per day, a Second Life avatar sucks watts about as fast as a flesh-and-blood citizen of Brazil (see

“As Google grows, we don't want the business to become part of the problem. We want to be part of the solution,” said Larry Brilliant, executive director of Google's philanthropic arm,

But despite Brilliant’s comment, many engineers are skeptical of the hype that’s gathering around words like green, sustainable and renewable, perhaps especially when they’re applied to energy, and for sensible reasons.

“Biofuels encourage deforestation in developing countries,” says Dan Hebert, P.E., senior technical editor of sister publication Control Design. “It takes acres of wind turbine towers to generate relatively small amounts of electricity. The same is true with solar. Power produced is sporadic, often not available when most needed, and incredibly large amounts of land are needed to produce relatively small amounts of power.”

The examples given in the March 2008 cover story at make it clear that renewable energy can be plentiful and inexpensive enough to power at least a significant percentage of today’s industrial applications. But you can feel author and energy expert Peter Garforth’s frustration when he writes, “Tempting as it is to include this as usually the cleanest and cheapest energy source, conservation is beyond the scope of an article on energy sources commonly referred to as renewable.”

Compared to renewables, cuts in consumption are harder to make and more difficult to measure, and efficiency hasn’t had a rock star since Jimmy Carter left office in 1980 (Gore doesn’t count because of his energy-hogging lifestyle). Hebert says, “The problem is that there is no huge industry with paid lobbyists that benefits directly from reduced energy use, so cutting consumption falls to a motley collection of industry engineers, environmental groups and utilities.”

True, there’s no way yet in the United States to sell conservation by the pound of CO2, but that day will come. Meanwhile, many industries do stand to profit indirectly from the variety of no-risk, high-return investments we all can make in energy efficiency. Issue after issue of Plant Services highlights gains made in compressed air systems, HVAC, motor systems, lighting and more. You can find it all here at

But no avatars. Not yet.

E-mail Paul Studebaker, editor in chief, at [email protected].

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