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In Stalin Lives, I mentioned our plan for securing an ENERGY STAR® clothes washer and dryer for our house.  What I did not mention was that the local appliance stores do not even stock gas-heated dryers.

Think about how stupid it is to generate electricity with maybe 35% thermal efficiency, lose 10% of it to line losses, as discussed last week, in it’s transport to the home and then use this high-value energy as a toaster coil to dry clothes.  We, as well as I am sure millions of households, use “gas”, natural gas in our case and propane in others, for space heating while at the same time we have a electricity guzzling clothes dryer.  Why? Because as I said, we bought the thing for an apartment that had only an electric energy supply for the dryer.  In other cases per the local appliance retailers, they don’t even stock gas dryers.

This is a huge opportunity for energy efficiency programs struggling to find cost effective savings in residential sectors because of appliance efficiency standards and the phasing out of the Edison incandescent light bulb.  There is one major problem, however – it doesn’t fit the current regulatory model because of fuel switching.  Measures that include fuel switching are not eligible for programs and incentives in just about every jurisdiction I know of.  This is one of the buggy whip holdovers that regulatory agencies are going to have to get over – among a bunch of other ones I’ll discuss in future posts.

The fuel switching argument goes something like this: electric consumers should not be cross-subsidizing gas consumers.  And, electric utilities should not be giving money away to shed load, reduce their revenue and turn it over to the gas company, which may or may not be the same utility.  Many if not most times, gas is provided by a different utility than the electric provider.

This is akin to the argument that utilities should not make money from energy efficiency programs, which can be done if regulators would allow it.  This also makes no sense.  Electric utilities are throwing money at customers to use less of their product all the time but typically it just results in less electricity consumption and not more of some other fuel consumption.

According to the Energy Information Administration, 61 million American households have electric dryers and they consume 1,080 kWh per year apiece.  That’s probably a little more than a load per day.  I’ll buy it.

I could spend the entire weekend digging for numbers and put this all together but instead, I’ll make some educated guesses.  Using 11 cents per kWh, the electric bill for an electric dryer runs about $120 per year.  A gas-fired clothes dryer would require a measly 38 therms to do the same drying.  Using a conservatively high natural gas cost of 80 cents, this is $30 per year.  Consumer savings is about $90 per year.  This is probably an 8-9 year payback.  Throw in $100 incentive and this brings it down to maybe 6-7 year payback.  I am not a program benefit/cost or total resource cost expert but, this has to be a passing score for a cost effective program.

New residences should also get incentives for natural gas hookups and even supply if the residence is in a town with natural gas running through its neighborhoods.  Before we moved into our house, ur apartment for instance was all electric but surrounded by natural gas distribution – stupid!!!  What gawdawful waste of resources.

What sort of impacts then are we talking about?  Sixty-six billion kWh, which would require about fifteen 500 MW power plants running 8,760 – that is if everyone took their turn such that there would be exactly 1.5 million dryers running at any one time – about 7,500 MW from the 15 power plants.  I would guess that at least half of these dryers could be replaced, meaning homes with these dryers have gaseous fuel to the residence already.

The above guesstimates are reasonable considering there are 40 million households with electric water heaters (everyone has a water heater and there are 40 million electric units and not everyone has a dryer and there are 60 million electric units – get it?).  Generally speaking, if people have natural gas or propane for their home they have a gas water heater, but not always; again, apartment buildings being the stupid cheapskates.  Electric water heaters in this country require about twenty-five 500 MW power plants running 24/7/365.  Surely a quarter of these could be lopped off, cost effectively as well.

There is an old saying I scoff at every time I hear it: “Work smarter, not harder.”  Whoever says that probably has never done either.  Necessity is the mother of invention.  The more work that gets piled on a person, the more they innovate so they can go home at a decent time and not have to work all weekend.  Although in some sectors, piling on more work means hiring more people out of “necessity” or just not getting certain things done out of “necessity” because the day starts at 8:00 and ends at 5:00 with an hour for lunch, period.

For energy efficiency, we’ve been working on the “harder” part.  We promote efficient equipment and systems but I think we need to wise up and consider promoting avoidance of the absurd.

You have probably seen the ad for the all-electric Nissan Leaf.  The opposite for some things like dryers, water heaters, and residential ovens/ranges, it isn’t quite as amusing, however.


At the Midwest Energy Solutions Conference I mentioned last week, three utility executives from major utilities including ComEd, Ameren, and AEP discussed the need for changing the utility business model because it doesn’t work with a non-growing and in some cases shrinking sales environment.  This will probably be the subject of a future post but it just occurs to me, speaking of the Leaf, that they obviously are not counting on electric transportation taking off because this would create huge demand and increase in sales.  When will the automakers come to the same conclusion?

Meanwhile another $115 million “winner” of favored Washington businesses, Ener1, a maker of lithium-ion batteries for automobiles quietly filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy last week.  Speaking of absurd, the death of the electric car is coming faster than I imagined.  The article mentions that not only are customers put off by limited range and luxury car prices, they fear lack of service and parts because only a few thousand exist and all the parts suppliers will be out of business.  On top of everything else, there is a vicious circle of doubt in buyers’ minds.

The article goes on to say, “The company said it reached an agreement with its main investors and lenders on a restructuring plan it says will ‘significantly reduce its debt and provide up to $81 million to recapitalize the Company to support its long-term business objectives and strategic plan.’”  Uh, sorry.  The only investor stupid enough to recapitalize a company with virtually zero demand for its products is the US government on behalf of the US taxpayer, but the political tables have turned.  Although the failure had little press, government recapitalizing failure will rightfully be lambasted.

Speaking of absurd, this winter has been absurdly warm from the plains to the east coast.  My recent electric bill said it was 10 degrees warmer than the same period a year ago when it was about average.  Alaska generally has the opposite extreme we have here in the upper Midwest.  Yesterday (Saturday) the low was minus 52 and the high? (get a load of this): minus 37.  WoW!  Normal things don’t like to work when it gets cold, say minus 20.  I can’t imagine the things that don’t work when it’s minus 52.  A condensing furnace for example may not work as the condensate may freeze or the exhaust may ice up blocking the flow of combustion air/gases.  Amazing.  What do they use for antifreeze in their vehicles?  Everclear?

Jeff Ihnen

Author Jeff Ihnen

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