It's easy to promote energy-saving technologies and products, but their up-front cost may be too high for many people, despite the assurance of long-term benefit.
We're all aware of the push for implementing diverse energy-saving technologies, and with good reason: They pay off in the long run. A few recent examples you may have read about include:
Ford is switching the body panels of the F-150 pickup, its most popular truck, from steel to aluminum. This will reduce weight by several hundred pounds and increase gas mileage by a few mpg, but it will also raise the vehicle cost by a few thousand dollars. The switchover is not trivial; it requires huge changes in the supply chain, body panel design, production tooling, and manufacturing techniques. In addition, aluminum is much harder to repair in the field. Only a few body shops can handle it.
Cars are being designed for "start-stop" operation, where the engine shuts off when the vehicle stops (no matter how briefly) and restarts when the gas pedal is depressed. Again, the objective is to save fuel. The cost is the need for a far more rugged design in the entire starter subsystem, as well as a very different internal construction of the vehicle battery. The need for frequent bursts of starting current (around 100 A) puts a very different battery charge/discharge curve and chemistry into play.
To squeeze a little more operating efficiency and mileage out of the power train, the traditional three-, four-, and even five-speed transmission is being replaced in some vehicles with seven or more forward speeds. The penalties are the increased weight and size of the transmission, unknown long-term reliability, and, of course, higher initial cost.
In a non-automotive application, we have the use of CFLs and LED-based lamps in place of the incandescent bulb, as dictated by building codes and other government mandates. Certainly, these newer technologies are much more efficient and last longer, but they are also more costly. An LED lamp costs between $5 and $10, while an incandescent bulb is less than $1 in many cases.
In all these cases, the message is the same: Regardless of the up-front cost to the consumer, it's worth it because it will save energy and thus money in the long run. Economists call this ROI, for "return on investment."
But the dilemma is this: Not all consumers can afford to think in terms of that virtuous long run, nor can they measure the value of their expenditures in terms of cold, rational ROI. For many people, spending a few hundred extra dollars now -- to save that amount and more later -- is just not a viable option. They don't have the money, period. You could argue that it is somewhat presumptuous of those who have the funds available to insist that those who may not have them to do this for their own good, if only they could think of the long term and act accordingly.
That's why I am of two minds whenever I see yet another energy-saving product or program that says we need to invest (also known as "spend") money now in order to get recurring savings later. Certainly, the ROI may be favorable, but not everyone has the ability to make that up-front investment, regardless of how much sense it makes in the ideal world. In some ways, it's yet another manifestation of the many corollaries to the basic engineering design rule, "The perfect is the enemy of the good."
Have you seen an energy-saving design or strategy that assumed too much about the end user's situation? Which aspects do you consider unrealistic, and why?
You could certainly make the same argument for pollution control equipment and for safety features built into cars, occasionally voluntarily by the auto makers, and almost always eventually mandated by governments. At least with lighter body panels and such, operation of the vehicle is not impaired. You can't say the same thing for pollution devices, starting with the initial, crude, exhaust gas recirculation and spark retardation systems in the early to mid 1970s, which caused very poor fuel economy, not to mention sluggish performance. It took years to get engines to perform properly again - I'd say, it took until the 1990s.
All of these increased the cost of cars. Does anyone think we should go back to the cars of 1966?
The auto makers are having to meet ever more stringent fuel economy requirements, which is why they cannot avoid these upgrades. If it were left up to me, I'd consider making it far more difficult to sell obnoxiously wasteful vehicles, with blunt and tall front ends, much like the Ford F-150 you mention, which so many automakers try to emulate. I'm not convinced that the EPA fuel economy ratings take into full consideration the appalling aerodynamics of these ugly behemoths. Changing fenders to aluminum hardly seems like the most cost-effective path to improvement.
Specifically about car lighting systems, the incandescent lightbulbs are surprisingly expensive. The author claims the cost to be around 1$, but I seem to be paying around $5-10 and even $20 for the main bulbs. At this point I haven't seen reasonable-priced compatible LED car bulb replacement, but I expect them to start showing up. soon. Similarly, the fancy house bulbs (say PAR style) began to have comparable pricing for incandescent and LED technology, so I stopped buying incandescents.
I might be wrong, but isn't the only mandate for improved mileage? The carmaker can make whatever choices it wants to achieve those goals. (I don't think even incandescent headlights are illegal).
I'm old enough to remember the oil embargo, when the US discovered just how dependent it was on unstable countries for its energy supplies. Gasoline prices were measured in cents before hand. Every President since has promised energy independence and no one ever beleived there was a chance of it ever happening. Now it seems that this goal may actually be in sight. You could argue whether or not this mandate should exist (rather than just making gasoline more expensive and let the market decide how to respond), but I think that this is what started it all.