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Cover Story

Energy efficiency: How the Internet can lower your electric bill

Energy efficiency – revolutionized by cyber networks – may carry the same impact as a new oil boom. Electricity users are seeing power in their 'negawattage' as they cut their bills by 90 percent.

By Staff writer / October 6, 2013

Energy efficiency – power not used – has been revolutionized by the Internet. Our 'negawattage' is saving as much power as an oil boom would create. This is the cover story of Oct. 7, 2013 issue of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly.

John Kehe/Staff

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Chicago

Gary Raymond had had enough of the lights in Warehouse No. 5.

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Staff writer David Unger talks with the Monitor's Pat Murphy about his story on large-scale energy efficiency.

The old metal-halide fixtures cast a sour yellow hue on the stacks of cardboard boxes inside the storage facility. They hummed incessantly and burned out well before their due.

So Mr. Raymond, the landlord, replaced them with a brighter, smarter Web-enabled lighting system. He hoped it would help attract and retain tenants in the increasingly competitive warehouse market on Chicago's Southwest Side. But when the next utility bill arrived, something looked very wrong.

The bill appeared to show only partial electricity use, and the bottom line was a tenth of what it normally was. The tenant thought the new lights might be broken, but as far as Raymond knew, they worked just fine.

The local utility couldn't believe it either. Commonwealth Edison (ComEd) dispatched an engineer to double-check that the meter was operating properly, Raymond recalls, and later hired a consultant to monitor the lights.

Everything checked out. The meter worked. The lights shone. The partial electricity use wasn't a result of the "intelligent" lighting system working improperly. It was a result of it working exactly as designed – and better.

"We were amazed," Raymond says. "We thought it'd be around 80 to 90 [percent savings], and it turned out to be more than 90."

Annual electricity costs at the 177,413-square-foot warehouse dropped from about $50,000 a year to less than $5,000, and ComEd awarded Raymond a $65,176.90 efficiency rebate.

Today, Raymond walks under a cool, white glow in Warehouse No. 5, extolling those lights with the intimate reverence typically reserved for the latest smart phone or luxury car. Forklifts beep past as he strolls through rows of boxes filled with the empty plastic bottles made in an adjoining plant. Twenty feet above his head, networked clusters of light-emitting-diode (LED) bulbs brighten as he moves near them and dim as he walks away.

"I assure you, you've never seen anything like this on a lighting system before," Raymond says back in an office where he demonstrates the lights' online interface, which tracks consumption data. Laughing, he adds, "This is the type of thing you'd see on 'Star Trek.' "

Call it "intelligent efficiency," or "cleanweb." Call it the "soft grid," or the "enernet." There's a host of buzzwords to describe the growth of Internet-enabled efficiency, and they all mean slightly different things. But they all pose the same underlying question: How can we harness the power of the Web to consume less energy? Their end goal is identical: a resource as clean as wind or solar, but as light and gossamer as a cloud.

Internet communications, inexpensive sensors, and data analytics are enabling a high-tech, holistic approach to energy efficiency. In the past it was, "How do I design an efficient light?" Now it's, "How do I design a whole network of efficient lights that talk to one another via Web communications, adjust output automatically, and report back through online data portals that optimize performance?"

This mash-up of energy industry and information technology gives efficiency a shiny interactivity that expands the conversation beyond "eat-your-vegetables" lectures about insulation and compact fluorescent light bulbs. It promises an energy reduction boom to parallel the oil and gas production boom that has transformed the global energy landscape.

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