For Palo Alto, it's the watts that count | April 16, 2010 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - April 16, 2010

For Palo Alto, it's the watts that count

City focuses on energy efficiency to save costs, environment

by Gennady Sheyner

Last week, when Palo Alto utilities officials offered residents $8 dimmable, energy-efficient light bulbs — normally priced at $38 — they had no idea they'd unleash an L.E.D. craze.

Customers snapped up all 2,000 Light Emitting Diode (L.E.D.) bulbs within two days — a level of demand that utility officials are calling "overwhelming" and "unprecedented."

The city's previous rebate efforts for light bulbs typically attracted a few hundred participants over periods of several weeks or months.

To feed the demand, the department has ordered 1,000 more bulbs and expects them to hit local hardware stores in about a month, said Joyce Kinnear, marketing manager at the Utilities Department. The lights are limited to one per customer.

The L.E.D. program is part of the city's growing effort to promote local energy savings as the most direct path to a greener tomorrow.

"We consider energy efficiency to be the cheapest, best resource we have, and we certainly want to invest in acquiring that resource," Jane Ratchye, the Utility Department's assistant director for resource management, said at an April 6 meeting of the City Council Finance Committee.

The full council is planning to adopt a "Ten-Year Energy-Efficiency Plan" on Monday night — a plan that sets a goal of reducing the city's use of electricity by 7.2 percent by 2020 through energy-efficiency programs. The city's Utilities Advisory Commission and the Finance Committee have already unanimously approved the proposal.

The plan targets everything from building materials and old refrigerators to streetlights and data centers.

The council last adopted a long-term energy-efficiency plan in 2007, at which time the council set a goal of saving 3.5 percent by 2016. The city has significantly surpassed its annual goal in every year since then, according to a recent Utilities Department report.

In fiscal year 2009, the city reduced its electricity load by 0.47 percent, far more than the plan's hoped-for 0.28 percent. In fiscal year 2010, the city is projected to save 0.5 percent of its electricity load, far beyond the 0.35 percent called for in the plan.

Palo Alto already offers a wide range of energy-efficiency programs for residents, small businesses and large companies. These include:

-Rebates totaling 50 percent of the cost of switching to energy-efficient equipment from standard equipment.

-Rebates of up to $900 for builders who exceed the requirements of the city's Green Building ordinance.

-A free in-home energy audit conducted by Acterra, a local nonprofit organization focused on environmental education and conservation.

-A $35 rebate to customers who recycle their old refrigerators.

-Rebates for energy-efficient lighting systems, chillers, boilers and HVAC (heating and air) units.

Refrigerators are far and away the most cost-effective appliances for customers to replace, Kinnear said. Utilities staff estimated that an old refrigerator uses about 1,500 kilowatts per year, while a new energy-efficient refrigerator only uses about 400 kilowatts. A customer who dumps an old fridge for a new, efficient one could cut energy expenditures from about $180 to $48 a year, Ratchye estimated.

While people like getting money back, or paying less, utility companies don't necessarily see benefits when they give away products. Kinnear noted that customers who get free energy-efficient appliances don't always use these items.

"Even if you give away items such as compact fluorescent lights (CFLs), that doesn't necessarily mean that people will install them," Kinnear said. "PG&E has given away millions of CFLs that are now available on eBay or sitting in people's closets.

"If people don't pay for an item, they don't value it as much."


Posted by Stephen Rock, a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 16, 2010 at 10:23 pm

The article on 4/16/10 "For Palo Alto, its the watts that count" contains some errors. The author should know that kilowatts is a unit of power, not a unit of energy. Thus the phrase "an old refrigerator uses 1,500 kilowatts per year" has no meaning. Perhaps the author meant kilowatt-hours (a unit of energy) per year. If that is the case and with a cost in Palo Alto of about $0.10/kilowatt-hour, the old refrigerator would cost about $150/year to use, while the new one,
using 400 kilowatt-hours, would cost about $40/yr, a difference of about $110/year. This is in the range of $48 to $180 year quoted by the author.
The article refers to "old" and "new" refrigerator, but does not define how old is "old". Is my 15 year old refrigerator "old"?
I use about 2100 kW-hrs/year total. If my refrigerator used 1500 of these, that would leave very little for lighting, cooking, audio, dishwasher, washing machine, dryer motor, computing, etc.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 16, 2010 at 11:35 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

See my erlier comment, where folk buy improvements with their energy savings.

Posted by Anon., a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 20, 2010 at 1:39 pm

$38 for a light bulb? Is someone crazy?

I am all for LED lightbulbs, or whatever the newest cleanest most efficient illumination is ... but $38 is insane.

Investing so much in a lightbulb does not make sense practically even if in the perfect case it makes sense economically or environmentally. What happens if it breaks, or is defective? They say these things have a very long lifetime, but when I walk through the aisles at Fry's I always see some of the LEDs burned out on their demo lamps.

And how bright are these $38 light bulbs. To get a reasonable amount of light I already have to load my fixtures with 2 of the compact fluorescents.

Posted by SteveU, a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 20, 2010 at 6:07 pm

SteveU is a registered user.

Anon make a good point. What about early failures. All those "savings" numbers go out the window. Warranty claims require returning the Defective lamp. More $$ for postage.
My house has almost 90% CFL/Fluorescent usage.
1 out of 10 bulbs are DOA when placed into service from spares (store return expired). another 1 out of 10 fails in the first year. The rest live up to expected life 10,000 hrs (I write the date installed with a sharpie).
I bought a 3 pk of LED Nite lights at Walgreens. Within 3 months, 1 failed. Within 1 year, another failed The last one has been in service 3 years.
Worried about LED failures, Look at the Red and Green Stop lights at corners. See the missing "bits".
Failures (common, after a year). Some just have an annoying flicker".

I like the Pharox lumens output. The color is a little cool. The Novicomm is just ugly and has a bunch of stated use limitations (Hours per day, non-enclosed fixture).

$38 is just to much with these issues.
Now, if they were $10. I will start replacing existing CFL as they fail.

Posted by Anon., a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 22, 2010 at 11:49 pm

>> Now, if they were $10. I will start replacing existing CFL as they fail.

For me it is mostly about brightness. Color is even secondary to me, I want to be able to see if I need to. To read or clean or find something small that fell into the carpeting ... whatever.

A lot of these CF bulbs fail, and some break releasing mercury and phosphorus. Again ... I have to use 2 high output CF bulbs to replace two moderate output incandescent. Of course the heat is another issue, and the Cf help in that regard by not being as hot.

What is in the LED bulbs and how hot do they get? How bright are they? I would be curious to try them ... but not at $38.

It seems that the first thing any green product tries to do is to get the rich or foolish to pay way more than they will save for the privilege of being able to be green before others.

We should be doing more to subsidize these bulbs, and we ought to ask companies to be producing them at a reasonable cost, but not if they do not work well yet.

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