Homeland Stupidity

Energy Department still wasting energy

You could power 9,800 homes for a year on the energy that the U.S. Department of Energy is wasting by not using setback thermostats in its facilities, many of which already have the setback thermostats installed.

According to a report made public last week by the department’s inspector general, DoE was not using setback capabilities at 35 of the 55 buildings reviewed, because the systems were not maintained, or officials simply weren’t interested in using them.

After the inspector general’s visit, though, those agencies went on a crash course to start using the systems.

Setback thermostats are programmable to allow for heating or cooling to be reduced during the times when a building is unoccupied or needs less energy. In your home, a setback thermostat saves energy by automatically setting back the temperature when you are at work or sleeping. In an office, the temperature would be set back during non-working hours.

According to the DoE, homeowners can save as much as 15% on their energy bills by replacing an old thermostat with a setback thermostat. Businesses can save much more; the inspector general noted that savings could be as high as 40% for some of the buildings it inspected.

Department managers agreed to begin using setbacks, to require them in future building lease agreements, to train personnel on how to use them, and to consider keeping them properly maintained. You read that right; they will consider it.

Since part of the reason for the DoE to exist is to promote energy conservation, and the cost savings dramatically exceed the implementation costs, “we could find no plausible reason for the lack of interest in setbacks” among DoE officials responsible, according to the report. Some officials said it was “simply not a priority.”

What attracted my attention to this story wasn’t just the waste, which you can find anywhere in government, but a bizarre comment from a policy wonk.

Harvey Sachs, a senior fellow at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, said he was not terribly surprised by what he called “just one example of almost universal market failures” when it came to energy conservation.

“If I was in the nuclear management business,” Mr. Sachs said, “I imagine there would be much more urgent stuff for me to worry about than where the thermostat is set.”

But, he added, the results of the audit were another sign that “for a lot of reasons, energy efficiency has not gotten as much play as it should have.” — New York Times

So a failure of the Department of Energy to save energy is somehow a market failure? I want some of what Harvey Sachs is smoking.

To start, some “evil greedy capitalist” came up with this setback thermostat thing in the first place! These systems have existed for home users since at least the 1990s; many office buildings have had them even longer, and it’s been widely known for decades that dialing back the heating or air conditioning when nobody is around will save energy. Not to mention that the more energy saved, the more environment is saved. What a horrible thing for the market to do!

Here’s your homework for tomorrow. Go find your office building’s physical plant manager, facilities manager, or whatever the job title may be. Ask him or her if the building uses a setback thermostat, and if so, how much money it saves the company. Then check your own home to see if you have a setback thermostat, if you are actually using it, and how much money it is saving you. Report back to me with your findings. Also, I know a few of my readers work in HVAC. I’d appreciate a more complete history of setback thermostats, if you know anything you can share.

The inspector general has also taken DoE to task in the last year for failing to activate power saving features of its desktop computers and for failing to consolidate data center operations to save both operational and energy costs.

The DoE’s energy bill is only $300 million, so maybe saving a few million here and there isn’t a priority. But it’s apparent that for the Department of Energy, being responsible stewards of taxpayer money, not to mention the environment, is “simply not a priority.”