Springfield loses its cool
April 14, 1983
Americans are a remarkably calm and composed people. The energy crises of the 1970s and ‘80s came and went and left them unmoved. Those Americans who lived in Springfield were typical, as this explication of the wasteful economics of home refrigerators tried to make clear. (I also wrote about refrigerators here.)
The omission sparked no outpouring of letters to editors, so I assume I was among the few Springfieldians who were disappointed that the issue of refrigerators didn't come up during the recent city election campaigns. To most people, of course, refrigerators are merely machines for sticking messages on, keeping one's carp cold in, and storing one's plastic and aluminum in until one is ready to throw it away. But refrigerators are also cultural artifacts from which one can infer lifestyles, technology, and economic priority.
The ability to think deeply on the subject of refrigerators has been granted to too few of us. Betty Furness is one. Amory Lovins another.* Lovins is the self-styled "techno-twit" who authored the seminal book Soft Energy Paths. Lovins was the main speaker at the tenth annual conference of the Illinois Department of Energy and Natural Resources held in Chicago in the fall of 1981. (The title of Lovins' address was, "Soft Energy Paths: How to Enjoy the Inevitable." An accident of typography caused the speech to be listed later in the published proceedings of the conference as, "How to Enjoy the Inevitable Luncheon Address.")
Lovins is dynamite on refrigerators. Allow me to quote him at length:
How many of you remember the prewar refrigerators that had the motor up on top? Those motors were about 90 percent efficient. Nowadays they're more like 60 percent efficient and they're underneath so the heat goes straight up where the food is. Thus, with the blessings of modern technology, we have refrigerators that spend half their effort taking away the heat of their own motors. The manufacturers over the years have also tried to make the inside of the refrigerator bigger without making the outside bigger. What they were doing all this time was skimping on the insulation so that the heat comes straight in through the walls. They designed it so that when you open the door, the cold air falls out so it frosts up inside. Therefore, most refrigerators now have electric heaters inside which go on now and then to melt out the frost. Many of them also have electric strip heaters around the door to keep the gasket from sticking; it would be too simple to use a non-stick coating as in a frying pan. Then the whole thing, if you can even call it a refrigerator, is installed next to your stove or dishwasher so when that goes on, it goes on.
Concluded Lovins: "It's hard to come up with a dumber way to use electricity."
Lovins' broader point, however, was not just that refrigerators are dumb, but they are unnecessarily dumb. Lovins reported that redesign—replacing aluminum wire in motor windings with more efficient copper, mechanical refinements in compressors, bigger heat exchange coils, new refrigerant fluids, tighter door seals—results in a unit which will keep the same amount of food just as cold using only one-sixth the electricity.
That's optimum. But even the average refrigerator being sold today in Japan uses less than half the energy of its U.S. counterpart. The savings in electric bills possible with such machines are as sizable as they are unappreciated. Except for families using electricity for space or water heating, the kitchen refrigerator is the biggest electricity eater in the typical home. (No, it isn't the air conditioner. The energy audit done for the Springfield Energy Project, for instance, concluded that, in 1977, air conditioners accounted for 18 percent of the electricity used in the city's homes, while refrigerators consumed 21 percent, because the latter run all the time.)
According to a new DENR study (Vol. 8 of the Illinois Energy Plan, called "Options for Energy Efficiency in the Residential Sector of Illinois: 1983–2000," soon to be a TV movie) the average refrigerator in the average Illinois home in 1982 consumed 1,246 kilowatt-hours of electricity which cost its owner $75 (1980 dollars). Mechanical improvements can produce a large, frost-free unit which needs only 420 kwh per year; such a machine would cost maybe $150 more than today's dumb refrigerators, and thus would earn back the extra cost in about three years at current prices. DENR assumed refrigerators somewhat less smart (806 kwh/year) which would cost only $50 more than present models. Even that unassuming machine would earn its owner a return on investment over its useful life of 17 percent.
Beat that, Paine Webber!
The cumulative economic effects of avoidable inefficiency are considerable. Nationally, inefficient big appliances like refrigerators consume a quarter of the electricity produced; over the next twenty years, it is estimated that the U.S. will spend $50 billion building new power plants just to produce the electricity we will waste.
This is true in Illinois as the rest of the country. DENR calculates that for a mere $150 million invested in smarter refrigerators, Illinoisans can earn back energy savings worth $1.2 billion by the year 2000. (That's 1.2 billion of today's dollars.) That's $8 saved for every $1 invested.
The money not spent to run dumb refrigerators could be spent in other sectors of the economy. According to a DENR computer simulation, utility sales would drop if the state opted for what the agency calls its energy-efficient future. But spending in the mining and electrical equipment sectors would go up, in part because of the manufacture of new refrigerators. So would spending in finance, real estate, and construction (as people invested their new money) and in the trade and service sectors (as people ate out more, got their teeth fixed, and so on). The net difference in jobs by the year 2000 statewide would be modest but real—about 900 more jobs created than if the state bought dumb.
Consumers, alas, seldom concern themselves about such cosmic effects. Price, color, features, brand name all count for more than efficiency. (Americans may not believe there will be no tomorrow but they still buy as if they do.) Refrigerators are dumb because people are dumb. Thus, while the efficiency of U.S.-made units has improved somewhat in recent years, they are hardly pushing the limits of technology.
With such scant demand for efficiency, mode's are differentiated by size or doodads instead. The difference between the most efficient and the least efficient model in a given model line often is the difference between bad and worse. One of the reasons Springfield's City Water, Light and Power chose not to offer its consumers rebates on the purchase of efficient 'fridges as it has on purchases of air conditioners and insulation is that the investment in "efficient" models compared to inefficient ones wouldn't save enough energy for either the consumer or the utility to make it worthwhile.
Unfortunately, it is by no means clear that people are willing to invest in efficiency without some such incentive. Writing in the February-March issue of Technology Review, physicist David Goldstein concluded from his own extensive studies of residential energy use that consumers "simply do not buy more efficient appliances in response to higher electric rates." Goldstein found that the states where smart refrigerators sold well were not those (like New York) where electric rates were the highest but those (such as California) which had mandatory appliance efficiency standards.
We may dismiss as unlikely the prospects of the General Assembly adopting such state standards any time soon. I'm not certain whether cities have the authority to set local standards. Consumer resistance would be just as stiff no matter who promulgated them. Last year when the task forces of the Springfield Energy Project dared to speak of appliance efficiency standards at all in their final reports and recommendations (as the Commercial/Industrial Task Force did in connection with cooling equipment, for example), they were careful to suggest that such standards be strictly voluntary. In short, no standards at all.
Students of energy policy will not be surprised to realize again that the most efficient strategy is the one which no one wants to use. As it's presently constituted, the free market—the daydreams of the Reaganites to the contrary—does not breed intelligent energy use any more than free elections breed intelligent leadership. In a state which exports billions to pay for energy, it is still possible for leaders to resist things like building codes and appliance standards as too costly. To paraphrase Lovins, it's hard to come up with a dumber way to make energy policy. ●
* One is tempted to see the workings of a larger hand in the fact that the name of the Leo Buscaglia of the alternative energy movement is pronounced "love-ins." Not to mention the fact that the woman who runs the conservation office for Springfield's municipal utility is named Dimit.