Skip to main content

Want to Incorporate Renewables on the Farm? Consider the Energy Pyramid

June 15, 2011

Audio with Sarah Hamlen, Montana State University Extension Wind and Transmission Program Director (MP3 3.2 MB) Download Windows Media Player. Time: 00:03:25

The interest in renewable energy sources like wind is growing. People are not only interested in reducing their expenses for traditional sources of energy but also improving the environment. But before deciding to move forward with a renewable energy project, Montana State University Extension Wind and Transmission Program Director Sarah Hamlen says there are several important things to consider. She encourages folks to evaluate energy efficiency and alternatives using the Energy Pyramid.

Whether at a home, business, or on the farm Hamlen says no one should install a renewable energy project without looking at energy conservation, efficiency, and demand. Actually, before considering those areas—in order to make the most informed decision—Hamlen suggests starting with assessment. She says there are two things to assess.

"The first thing I think they need to think about is, what am I trying to accomplish? Because your ultimate project or the way that you start to address your energy actions might be very different if you're concerned about financial return or trying to save money or make your situation more comfortable, than if you're looking at reducing your carbon footprint or doing an educational project in your community. The second piece of that, though, is assessing your actual energy consumption, and the most common way to do that is through an energy audit."

Hamlen says a good energy audit can show where energy is used, where action could be taken for little or no cost to make a big impact, and provide an understanding of the total cost of energy that's consumed.

Then it's time to start at the base of the Energy Pyramid, which Hamlen says is conservation.

"We define conservation as everyday actions that can help you to change the amount of consumption of energy that you have. And by energy we may be talking about energy and we might also be talking about water. When we're looking at conservation, we're looking at simple things like reducing thermostat settings in heated or cooled spaces or turning out lights or trying to reduce the total amount of water that we use when we irrigate or landscape our property."

Next, Hamlen says it's time to look at energy efficiency.

"The reason that we distinguish between conservation and efficiency is that there's usually some sort of purchase that's involved in energy efficiency. And that might be a low cost item such as lighting or adding some weather stripping, up to changing out doors and adding insulation or replacing windows. So we do have an investment at the efficiency level, but it's usually looking at long-term reduction in the total amount of energy that we're consuming."

Energy demand is next on the Energy Pyramid. This involves staggering large energy users to reduce peak demand for a billing period or shifting energy usage to periods with less demand on the distribution system.

Finally, energy alternatives and renewable energy are at the peak of the pyramid. Hamlen explains why renewable energy technologies should only be installed after measures for conservation, efficiency, and demand management have been implemented.

"First of all, as we move from conservation to efficiency up to renewables, we increase the amount of complexity and cost associated with those decisions. So we want to make sure that we've reduced the total amount of energy consumption as we move up the layers of that pyramid so that ultimately we can reduce the total cost of our energy, our alternative energy system."

Hamlen says it's important to devote some time to making decisions about energy projects. She says it requires research to gain a better understanding of renewable energy systems before making an investment.

—Julie Jones