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Achieving Laboratory Energy Efficiency

Instituting economical ways to save electricity could save about three quarters of the electricity consumed in the U.S. at an average cost of about one cent per kilowatt-hour, according to Amory Lovins, chairman and chief scientist of Rocky Mountain Institute.

John K. Borchardt

Dr. Borchardt is a consultant and technical writer. The author of the book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers,” he writes often on career-related subjects.

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An Interview with Amory Lovins, Chairman and Chief Scientist of Rocky Mountain Institute

Instituting economical ways to save electricity could save about three-quarters of the electricity consumed in the United States at an average cost of about one cent per kilowatt-hour, according to Amory Lovins, chairman and chief scientist of Rocky Mountain Institute ( A featured speaker at the 2009 annual meeting of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, Lovins is among the world’s leading innovators in energy efficiency and alternative energy. He has advised energy and other industries for 35 years as well as the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense. His latest books include “Natural Capitalism” and, with Rocky Mountain Institute colleagues, “Small Is Profitable” and “Winning the Oil Endgame.” He was 2007 MAP/Ming Professor at Stanford University’s School of Engineering.

There are two revolutions currently going on in electrical power, according to Lovins. The first is more efficient use of electricity (see below). The second is a revolution in supply. “Electricity generation is essentially a coal story; 92 percent of CO2emissions produced from power plants come from coal,” says Lovins. In 2000, only 16 percent of U.S. electricity was generated using cleaner-burning natural gas. This is projected to rise to 22 percent by 2025. Natural gas is used largely in generating on-peak electricity using inefficient gas-fired simple cycle combustion turbines, Lovins says. Improving total U.S. electric efficiency by 5 percent would lower total U.S. natural gas demand by 9 percent, which would also tend to reduce natural gas prices. Reduced natural gas consumption would reduce the need for expensive liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals for imported natural gas from Russia and the Middle East. Some cities are already fighting the proposed location of LNG terminals in their areas. Improving efficiency in using electricity would also reduce the need for expensive natural gas pipelines (such as the Alaskan natural gas pipeline) and drilling for natural gas in wilderness areas.

Some of the saved natural gas could be used in heavyduty vehicles such as buses. (According to the U.S. Department of Energy ( fy00osti/28377.pdf), as early as 2000, 20 percent of all bus orders were for natural gas–powered vehicles.) Reduced demand for natural gas to generate electricity would also free large supplies of natural gas for making hydrogen.

Reducing energy intensity

Lovins believes we need to shift the debate. Currently, “The whole climate debate is about sacrifice. But what we should be talking about are jobs, profits and competitive advantage.” Meeting human needs while reducing global warming requires changing the relationship between energy consumption and economic activity. Lovins believes this is possible. With U.S. electricity use totaling 3.892 trillion kilowatt-hours in 2007 (http://www.nationmaster. com/country/us-united-states/ene-energy), reducing electricity consumption by even 1 percent would significantly reduce fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions. Pie in the sky? According to the National Research Council, other studies have arrived at similar conclusions.

Lovins notes that between 1977 and 1983 the U.S. economy grew 27 percent while oil consumption dropped 17 percent. He points out that economists have assumed that world energy intensity will fall by about 1 percent per year because of increasing efficiency. “If we could make that about 2 percent per year, it would stabilize carbon emissions. If we could make that more like 3 percent per year, carbon emissions would fall and atmospheric CO2 content would stabilize at current levels.” Achieving this is possible, according to Lovins. California cut its energy intensity by 4 percent in 2006. “California’s per capita use of electricity has fallen for 30 years, while per capita real income has risen 79 percent,” notes Lovins. Some companies have been cutting energy intensity by 6 percent to 16 percent annually while increasing profits. These include many names familiar to chemists, such as Dow and DuPont.

A major target in reducing energy intensity is more efficient use of electricity in homes, offices, industrial facilities—and laboratories.

Energy conservation technology

Lovins says that energy conservation technology is improving faster than it can be implemented, and the energy savings keep getting bigger. His approach is to use technology and smart design to optimize buildings as a system to get “big, cheap savings.” Lovins says that this approach can enable one to “tunnel through” the cost barrier of diminishing returns and rising marginal costs. He believes that “the U.S. could reduce electricity use by 75 percent for a cost of one cent per kilowatt-hour.”

Lovins’ Rocky Mountain Research Institute has demonstrated major cost savings and reduced energy use in $30 billion of existing facilities in 29 industrial sectors. Lovins comments that the design features of these facilities may not be high tech. For example, design improvements in production plants can be as simple as replacing long, thin, convoluted piping with wide-diameter, short, straight pipes.

Lovins has used his own home and the Rocky Mountain Research Institute facilities as test cases. At an elevation of 7,100 feet, frost can occur any day of the year and winter lows can reach minus 47°F. The house does not have a furnace but is warm enough that Lovins has harvested 28 crops of bananas from the mini-plantation in his atrium. The key is heavy insulation and efficient design, which cost less than a heating system. The home saves 99 percent of space and water heating energy and 90 percent of home electricity costs.

The technology is not new. When the home was built in 1963, the additional construction costs paid for themselves in 10 months through reduced energy bills. Similar home projects have produced similar results in hot climates such as Bangkok, Thailand.

However, while incorporating technology for increased energy efficiency into new construction is important, it is even more important to apply energy conservation technology in existing buildings such as industrial, academic and government laboratories.


What does this mean for laboratory managers and their employers? Laboratories are major energy consumers on academic campuses and in corporate research centers, according to the University of California, Los Angeles Office of Environmental Health & Safety. At UCLA, labs account for 60 percent of campus energy demand but only 10 percent of campus building space. On a squarefoot basis, labs use four to five times more energy than classrooms and offices. Reducing energy consumption can decrease a laboratory’s carbon footprint, reducing its contribution to global warming. For example, for every kilowatt-hour used at UCLA, there is an associated carbon emission of 1.24 pounds. This actually is lower than the national average, which is 1.5 pounds per 1 kilowatt-hour. Electricity demand totals about 60 percent of UCLA’s energy bill.

UCLA is encouraging its researchers to make their laboratories more energy efficient. By informing lab researchers about what they can do to help conserve energy, laboratory managers can involve their researchers in reducing energy costs and carbon emissions.

For example, fume hoods are major energy consumers. One fume hood uses enough energy annually to power 3.5 households. A typical fume hood exhausts as much energy as 20 residential bathroom fans running simultaneously, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Closing the sashes of unused fume hoods is a simple action that limits the velocity of air flow and greatly reduces energy consumption. To encourage researchers and laboratory technicians to do this, inspection of fume hood sashes could be part of laboratory safety inspections. Many industrial laboratories not producing highly toxic gases in their hoods have adjusted hood fans to reduce the throughput volume at which their fume hoods operate.

When working in fume hoods, UCLA recommends using an 18-inch sash height. Other aspects of good housekeeping that can improve hood energy consumption include placing items so that they don’t block the fume hood sash. UCLA recommends using appropriately designed storage cabinets rather than fume hoods to store chemicals and equipment.

Another way to reduce laboratory electricity consumption is to turn off lights when the lab is unoccupied. When working in a specific area such as a desk, use small area lamps instead of overhead lights that illuminate the entire laboratory. If the building design allows, maximize the use of sunlight to illuminate the lab.

Computers and associated equipment such as monitors consume substantial amounts of electricity. So researchers should turn them off overnight and place them in standby mode for shorter periods of inactivity such as when they attend a meeting or seminar. Power strips associated with computers and other equipment should be turned off overnight as well.

Good laboratory housekeeping can make a significant contribution to reducing energy consumption. This includes periodically defrosting refrigerators and keeping a cleared diameter of at least one foot around refrigerators to reduce the heat load.

Some labs are located near exit doors that let hot or cold air into the laboratory. In this situation, doors to individual labs should be closed. Using stairs instead of an elevator can reduce electricity use.

Energy conservation investments

Lovins calls energy efficiency “one of the highestreturn and lowest-risk investments in the entire economy, no matter how low energy prices might go.” He says that energy efficiency makes it possible to attack the problem of global warming even if energy prices remain low. Side benefits of energy efficiency may often be more valuable than reduced energy costs. Lovins believes that these benefits include higher labor productivity in energy-efficient laboratories and higher throughput, flexibility and product quality in energy-efficient factories.

Lovins recommends allowing businesses to expense energy-saving investments that are currently capitalized. This will allow these investments to compete on a level playing field with the tax-deductible energy costs they save. This policy could provide a general stimulus to the economy at a time when it is sorely needed. For example, Lovins notes that when assessing means of building new energy-efficient buildings or remodeling existing buildings, insulation should be regarded as a capital cost that reduces the amount of capital required for heating and cooling systems.

Decreasing energy use can even improve employee health. Mark Mendell and Anna Mirer of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory just completed a study of 95 office buildings across the country. Their findings indicate that summer building temperatures below 73.4°F (23°C) resulted in a 50 percent increase in employee headaches and fatigue as well as difficulty concentrating. In winter, building temperatures higher than this resulted in 30 percent to 80 percent increases in building-related nose, eye and skin symptoms as well as headaches.

The future

Additional cost-effective improvements in energy efficiency are on the way. For example, Royal Philips Electronics and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory are jointly developing new energy-efficient lighting solutions for buildings. Conventional (unmanaged) lighting systems are responsible for a significant proportion of wasted energy in buildings. Initial research is focusing on optimizing the energy efficiency of indoor lighting through advanced integrated wireless lighting control systems. These respond to people’s movements, events and external daylight levels. They will ensure that energy is used only when and where needed. Anticipated energy savings achievable with these new solutions could be more than 75 percent. Systems could be operational as early as 2010.

“Be bold. This is our last and best chance to get energy right. We know how; we just need to go do it,” advises Lovins.