Andrew Rudin's article in the latest issue of Home Energy describes his experiences with a PV and a solar thermal system. The results are not encouraging because the energy savings were modest at best and financial benefits possibly non-existent. The real-world performance described by Rudin is a depressing reminder that good intentions alone can't wring energy savings from an expensive, imperfect technology. Other stories have happier endings. Readers of this page may recall Danny Parker's home and how he had successfully converted his home to an electricity exporter through a combination of conservation and PV measures (July/August '11, p. 2).
Parker and Rudin have something in common: they were "Early Adopters" of energy efficiency. The Early Adopters operate at the bleeding edge of innovation. Sometimes early adoption is voluntary but for those people living off the grid, early adoption has been a technical and financial necessity. It's easy to dismiss these groups as quirky or irrelevant to the mainstream but in fact they play a vital role in bringing new concepts to the marketplace.
The Early Adopters spend what seems like an inordinately large amount of time getting half-baked ideas to work. They find products, tools, and methods that aren't available in Home Depot or even from more specialized sources (although www.toptenusa.org has made it a little easier to find the most efficient white goods). Early adoption means starting with lots of web searches, frustrating phone calls, uncertain delivery schedules, and annoyance with incomplete technical specifications. Once installed, there's a new set of problems, ranging from erratic performance to lack of spare parts to vanishing companies. Early Adopters help us understand the possibilities, even if the technology hasn't been fully proven. They find the bugs and -- if the system works -- manufacturers listen and modify their products.
Energy Star has recognized the value of the Energy Adopter, too. It just launched the "Energy Star Most Efficient" program (an uninspiring but accurate name). These products must (according to Energy Star) "... demonstrate efficiency performance that is truly exceptional, inspirational, or leading edge -- consistent with the interests of environmentally-motivated consumers and early adopters." The "Most Efficient" concept greatly raises the visibility -- and salability -- of energy-saving products. It also facilitates purchasing packages of products for new homes or deep retrofits. An energy-efficiency program now has a new, higher efficiency criterion that can be listed on purchasing specifications. These will be tough principles to maintain. First, how will Energy Star stay on the efficiency frontier when every manufacturer will resist having its products eventually downrated to "ordinary" Energy Star? Another feature of radically efficient products is that they deliver slightly different services -- think microwave ovens -- whose benefits may not be captured by current test procedures. Accommodating these changes will require a kind of agility one doesn't ordinarily expect from bureaucracies.
It's easy to dismiss the Energy Adopters' activities as unrealistic for broad application, but how often do we see those actions become commonplace a decade later? Home Energy often publishes articles about Early Adopters. Not too Early Adopters because we want you, the reader, to recognize the practical value of those innovations and transform them into standard, energy-saving, practices.
- Alan Meier