'Smiley faces' could help cut bills

Households could cut their fuel bills by £80 a year with the help of a simple “smiley”, a study has revealed.

Giving people feedback on how much energy they are using compared to their neighbours can have as big an impact on reducing bills as installing loft insulation or upgrading their boiler, the research by the organisation Sustainable Homes found.

Sending people happy face emoticons, or smileys, if they used less energy than other similar households, and sad faces if they were using more than the rest of the group, led to people changing their habits to reduce electricity and gas use.

The success of the smileys could be down to people’s desire to “fit in” with the social norm, something that can be a more powerful driver to change behaviour than the motivation of saving money, the study’s authors suggested.

Andrew Eagles, managing director of Sustainable Homes, said: “These findings will be of great interest to anyone concerned with cutting energy bills - which, of course, is most of us.

"We know that people are always keen to save money, but what this study uncovers is that their natural desire for approval is at least as important, and probably more so.

"Nearly one third of the UK’s emissions come from homes, and the results have implications for the roll-out of smart meters in the UK.

"They suggest we would be missing a trick if we did not take people’s real motivations into account with a simple and cheap method like this when we try and reduce household energy consumption."

The study recruited 540 homes in 14 housing associations around England, with all the households being given energy saving tips before they began the programme.

Some households received information about their energy use without comparison to other homes, some were ranked against similar properties and a third group received feedback with smileys which indicated how well they were doing compared to others.

Those in the smiley group whose energy use was in the lowest 25% of households got a yellow smiley with a big grin, while those in the second lowest quarter got a green smiling face.

Households whose energy use was in the second highest quarter compared to the group as a whole received an amber neutral face, and the highest energy users were sent a red sad face emoticon.

Feedback of any kind helped people cut energy use, but the research found that people who received smileys made the biggest savings compared to groups who were given a ranking or simply informed of their “killowatt-hour” usage.

The smiley group saved an average of 8% on their electricity bills and 3.6% on their gas bills, or around £79 on average.

If three-quarters of the UK population were to achieve these kind of savings, it could save 2.7 million carbon emissions a year, equivalent to switching off Didcot power station for half the year, the report said.

Why Solar Power Is Booming but Will Never Replace Coal

In recent years, solar power has shown tremendous growth. Last year alone, the solar industry hit a new record in terms of installed solar capacity. The data shows the impact which according  to the Energy Information Administration reached 3.5 million megawatthours of electricity produced by solar photovoltaic panels in 2012. In 2013, that figure more than doubled to 8.3 million Mwh. And to think that ten years ago, the U.S. generated only 6,000 Mwh from solar PV cells. Solar is gradually closing in on price parity with other energy sources such as coal — with full-cycle, unsubsidized costs of almost 13 cents per kilowatthour against 12 cents for more modern coal plants.

So, is the solar revolution finally arrived? Not really. Even after ten years of rampant growth, solar energy still hardly makes an impact in the U.S. energy field. In truth, solar only equals the amount of electricity that the nation produces by burning natural gas derived from landfills. And it is merely a little more significant than the 7.3 million Mwh we get from combusting human waste filtered out of municipal sewer structures.

Ultimately, when you collate all the sources of energy used up in this nation, captured solar energy adds up to significantly less than 1 quadrillion Btu out of an yearly total of 96.5 quadrillion.

The largest sources are the traditional standbys. Oil still stands above the rest at 36 quadrillion Btu, natural gas at 26 quads and nuclear at 8. Hydropower and biomass follow from behind at 2.6 and 2.7 quads. Wind is only 1.5 quads. And coal — the great carbon-emitting monster of the global energy sources —contributes 19 quads. That is about 8 times all the country’s wind and solar generation put together.

This is very vital important to remember in light of pending efforts by the EPA to institute draconian fresh regulations governing carbon dioxide emissions from coal-burning power facilities. Coal emits about 1.7 billion metric tons annually of carbon dioxide out of the 5.3 billion ton yearly total.

The assumption, by policy makers such as President Obama, is that the nation can reduce carbon emissions by shutting down coal plants, while making up for the lost electricity by using more natural gas and putting up more solar and wind plants. In truth, natural gas has replaced much of the coal output. In 2013, coal production from U.S. mines went down to 995.8 million short tons. The last time it went that low was in the late 1980s. Coal production reached its height in 2008 at 1.17 billion short tons.

The president is instituting significant measures to control heat-trapping pollution from coal-fired power plants and to increase renewable energy production on state-owned facilities, making use of his executive powers to resolve climate change issues and avoiding the partisan debacles in Congress.

The shortfall in demand has gravely affected America’s largest coal-mining firms. In the past five years, shares in Peabody Energy BTU +1.5% went down 36%, Arch Coal down 67% and Alpha Natural Resources ANR -1.67% off 78%. In contrast, shares in Solar City SCTY - 4.48%, up 400% in only 18 months.

However, coal is not dead. Certainly not close to it. “Even when the president is against coal, it is like you stand against City Hall. But the truth will conquer,” says Andrew Redinger, managing director at KeyBanc Capital Markets, which has performed investment banking work for coal firms and for solar developers. “I see coal recovering soon. The best thing for coal will be when we begin exporting natural gas.”

This winter proved that “announcing the death of coal is premature,” says Bob Yu, analyst at Bentek, a division of Platts. “Winter showed that natural gas is utilized for heating. Coal use was significantly up this winter because of natural gas purchases by retail buyers.”

Consider what occurred last winter during the chilling grip of the polar vortex. In January, shortfalls of natural gas in the Northeast led to price spikes above $100 per mmBTU in some markets. Electricity spot prices in the Mid-Atlantic region peaked as much as $2,000 per megawatthour for a short period. Natural gas experienced high demand for residential furnaces that electric utilities could not even get what they required for their power facilities. Some had to turn to back-up emergency generators that use much more expensive petroleum. So much for that so-called glut of shale gas.

Natural gas prices have already increased three-fold within two years. And coal-to-gas shift has already reversed. From making up 40% of the national electricity mix in the first quarter of 2013, coal’s share grew to 41.4% in the first quarter of 2014. Natural gas was down from 25.6% of total power production a year ago to 23.8% in the first quarter of 2014.

This will dampen what has been a slow shift away from coal. Power firms have been closing down old coal-burning facilities ahead of more stringent emissions regulations, with 4.7 gigawatts of coal capacity shut down in 2013, following the 10.3 GW in 2012. Another 60 GW of additional closures will occur by 2020. Analyst Yu says, “that may appear like a lot, but not in connection to the entire power mix.” The plants being shut down are many years old, not yet outfitted with the pricey “scrubbing” technology that can decrease harmful emissions by 90%, even when burning low-quality, sulfur-carrying coal.

At large electric facilities in the Midwest, where coal still supplies over 70% of fuel, the costs of converting coal into power are so low that we will see negligible shift over to natural gas — especially with prices of gas tripling in two years. In fact, the issue is whether or not shale gas drillers will have the capacity to fill up depleted gas storage ahead of the coming winter. We should be alright. After all, predictions say more than ample natural gas supplies are available as far as can be foreseen. Once pipeline obstacles are cleared out, there should be enough gas for everyone wherever it is needed.

So, what would it require for America to replace every coal-fired power facility (totalling to 19 quads of energy annually) with solar and natural gas? Let us consider it. Assuming a natural gas turbine construction bonanza, coupled with a rise in gas power plants’ operations to full capacity, we could significantly enhance power generation from gas by 50% in five years, supplying about 13 quads. To make up the rest of coal’s share with solar would require increasing the amount of electricity we get from solar about six times to about 50,000 megawatthours annually. Attaining that would mean 20% compound yearly growth in solar installations for a decade. Or almost 9% CAGR for 20 years.

This is feasible, on the short term. Electricity production from solar PV generation almost tripled from 2009 to 2010. It grew more than twice in 2011. And more than three times in 2012. Achieving such a growth rate is not difficult when you are small; but the bigger the base the harder it gets. Wind power is a fine example — it managed to increase 19% last year from a much larger base, to 168 million Mwh. But remember: Both wind and solar energy have to overcome the obstacle of geography — developers build systems in the most windy and sunny areas first. The worse the location, the more panels or windmills you require to attain the same amount of electricity. That is the reason why it is less important how many megawatts of solar capacity is built and more important how much actual electricity that is produced by those solar panels.

For all the discussions on “grid parity”, the simple truth is that even mixed with far more power generation from natural gas, renewable sources will need many decades to replace coal completely. And the irony will be that as the coal demand decreases, it will become less and less expensive, making it even more attractive for the coal-burning power facilities that endure through the coming storm. The direct cost of producing electricity from coal is 2.5 cents per Kwh.

It is encouraging to see that even some noted veteran environmentalists have proven themselves to be realistic when it comes to coal. Armond Cohen, executive director of the Clean Air Task Force, has concentrated for three decades on minimizing the environmental impact of the global energy system. Yet in an article published late last year, he claimed that “coal is not going away.”

Coal will be crucial to economic modernization in the developing world, where most energy supply will be installed in the next three decades. Coal will also have an important residual role in much of the OECD. Coal is not going away. We need to start using it without emitting considerable amounts of carbon dioxide, and quickly. If we don’t, the risk to global climate is great, and possibly irreversible. It’s that simple. People who think otherwise, and simply hope for the death of coal, are not admitting the facts. (…)

Let me be direct and clear: Except for the environmental challenges, this expansion of coal-fired power boom is a desirable development; dependable energy is a correlate of economic growth and human development. But let me be equally clear: The carbon produced by this expansion is unacceptable and puts us on a dire collision path with our global climate.

Coal has become enormously cleaner over the past generation. And novel and better ways will be discovered to derive energy from coal without producing dangerous by-products and burdening the environment. It is scalable and dependable in ways that renewable energy sources simply are not. Hence, unless we are willing to put up with blackouts that freeze grandma during winter and melt her in summer, coal will stay as a faithful source of U.S. power generation for many years to come.

10 Natural Alternatives to Energy Drinks

Almost every one of us is living in a fast lane and so are most of the Americans and we support this kind of lifestyle with no other than energy drinks.

According to Packaged Facts, a food and beverage market research firm, consumer demand for energy drinks increased 60 percent between 2008 and 2012. Sales of energy drinks and shots summed more than $12.5 billion in 2012 and Packaged Facts estimates this figure to boost to $21.5 billion by 2017.

Products who label themselves as the “energy” packaged drinks, shots, drink mixes and extra heavily caffeinated soft drinks. Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D., for the Mayo Clinic explains, most rely on large amounts of caffeine, along with sugar and other additives, to temporarily boost energy. The United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) suggests “stimulant drink” is a more appropriate name for this class of beverages.

The USADA found tyrosine and phenylalanine, which may interfere with medication; kola nut and guarana, which are sources of caffeine; yohimbe while analyzing commonly used ingredients in energy drinks, which interacts with anti-depressants; and ma huang, which is a plant source of ephedra. Competitive athletes should focus more on to energy drink ingredients, warns the USADA, as banned stimulants may come out having some other name.

Depending on energy drinks for just a boost of energy is fine sometimes but taking these kinds of products has harmful effects on the body. Excessive caffeine can cause nervousness, irritability, insomnia, increased heartbeat and elevated blood pressure.

Plus, it can trigger more serious complications such as migraines, seizures and heart problems. Reported by Medical News Today, the number of people receiving emergency treatment as a result of consuming energy drinks increased from 10,068 in 2007 to 20,783 in 2011,

If regularly feel fatigued or tired, or maybe you have a problem with your low energy or you, identifying the cause can be helpful in identifying effective, natural strategies. “Usually when people are feeling the need for an energy boost, it is due to a low-blood sugar or dehydration,” says Mindy Black, a board-certified dietitian and exercise physiologist.

Blood sugars drop 3 to 4 hours after a meal or 30 to 45 minutes after a high-sugar snack.

“No matter how perfect their lunch may have been, blood sugars only remain stable for about three hours,” Black says. She recommends one of these energy-boosting combos rather than energy drink. The secret is to include lean protein with quality carbs.

•             Handful of almonds mixed with a handful of whole grain cereal

•             Beet juice with low-fat string cheese

•             A smoothie with yogurt, a few strawberries and a banana or a mandarin orange and handful of walnuts

•             Salmon and half a cup of quinoa or brown rice

•             A glass of chocolate milk

Another common cause of low energy is dehydration. “If we’re dehydrated, a lot of our organs and vital systems are slowing down, which can make us lethargic and tired,” Black says. “If you are not drinking enough hydration fluids, not sodas and alcohol or juice, to have clear or close to clear urine every 90 minutes, your energy drain may be due to dehydration.” The solution? Drink more water.

One typical reason why people feel tired is that they’ve depleted their glycogen stores.

“Perceived exertion and perception of fatigue are directly related to low glycogen stores,” says Barbara Lewin, RD, LD, sports nutritionist and owner of Sports-Nutritionist.com. “That translates into not taking in enough carbohydrates, especially before and after your workouts. This is the primary reason for athletes experiencing low energy levels. The best ways to boost your energy levels is to consume carbs throughout the day.”

Here are a few more natural energy boosters:

•             Snack on healthy carbohydrates, such as apples and oatmeal

•             Include foods containing iron, such as spinach, nuts, oysters and dark chocolate, in your diet

•             Drink cold water to increase energy for up to two hours

•             Take a quick 10-minute walk

•             Catch a 20-minute power nap

Although energy drinks offer a short-term solution to low energy, developing healthy habits such as getting enough sleep, eating wholesome foods every 3 to 4 hours and regular physical activity will keep you energized all day, every day.

Solar Startup Could Make At-Home Renewable Energy Purchases Easily

An online marketplace will let U.S. homeowners to evaluate selections for going solar as easily as they can compare prices for airline tickets for the first time this December.

Geostellar is a startup backed by power producer NRG Energy Inc. It is in quest of becoming the Expedia or Orbitz of the solar industry. The said solar industry is a one-stop shop where consumers can not compare the benefits of leasing solar panels versus buying them outright alone but eventually sign up to install a system.

On the site, www.geostellar.com, Solar players together with NRG, No. 1 U.S. installer SolarCity Corp, Boston-based solar loan provider Admirals Bank, manufacturer and financier Conergy, East Coast installer Roof Diagnostics and Connecticut’s Clean Energy Finance and Investment Authority will feature their products.

Geostellar looks forward to its platform will let installers and financiers to lower the price of getting hold of new customers. It is a main objective in the ferociously competitive rooftop solar industry. Solar companies are centered on cutting prices therefore they will be able deliver on their promise to save customers money on power bills by converting to solar.

Geostellar will make money by claiming a portion of a system’s total installed price – between 10 and 20 percent, Chief Executive David Levine said.

According to Levine, Geostellar, which was founded in 2010, got its start by selling data to solar companies that showed the solar energy potential of individual rooftops. Its early customers included solar financing companies SunRun, Sungevity and others.

It increased to $14 million from NRG, Flash Forward Ventures, satellite imagery company GeoEye (now owned by DigitalGlobe Inc), and the state of Maryland’s venture capital fund, in May 2012

Levine had tried to convince his customers to use Washington-based Geostellar’s data to build a website where consumers can comparison shop for solar. He resolved to use those funds to build it himself.

“We went back to those customers and said instead of us giving you data and you doing the marketing, we want to be your customer acquisition engine,” Levine said in an interview.

To build 3D representations of neighborhoods and their rooftops, Geostellar makes use of satellite data. It is a simulation that moves the sun across the sky then facilitates the company calculates how much sun a rooftop gets at any specific time of the year. A key factor of this occurrence is in determining whether going solar makes financial sense. The website then layers on the value of government incentives in addition to local utility rates to provide customers a full view of what it would charge them to sign up for a solar installation.

Visitors to Geostellar’s website or its mobile app called Solar Mojo can then compare and contrast the costs and benefits of a solar lease, a lending plan or a cash purchase, depending on the market. Lastly, they can sign up for what they want with the click of a button.