August 26, 2002
Berkeley Lab Science Beat Berkeley Lab Science Beat
Buying it in bulk, the energy-efficient way
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Look around your office and notice all of the appliances that use energy. How many of them were purchased in the last five years? How many of those were the most energy-efficient product available? Now think about how many more appliances -- computers, printers, microwaves -- you will buy in the next several years. How much energy could be saved if every one of those is highly efficient?


"How about $1 billion a year, in round numbers?" says Berkeley Lab researcher Jeffrey Harris, of the Environmental Energy Technologies Division (EETD). "And that's for government agencies. The total would be several times higher if we can get business and consumer purchasing to follow the government's example."

An analysis recently completed by Harris and Francis Johnson, formerly of Berkeley Lab and now with the Stockholm Environment Institute, looked at the impact after 10 years of four different scenarios for energy-efficient purchasing. In theory, the federal government could save up to 42 trillion BTU of energy (or $620 million) each year, if all federal agencies would immediately start buying only the most energy-efficient products. A more realistic scenario shows federal savings of about $220 million/year at the end of ten years. For comparison, the government used 336 trillion BTU in its facilities in 1999, at a cost of about $3.4 billion.

"It's a powerful idea," says Harris, "because energy-efficient purchasing doesn't require you to put together a lot of capital, like a major retrofit project or a new building. The idea is to get more leverage from the money you're already spending, by doing it a little smarter."

The 1992 Energy Policy Act and a 1999 Executive Order directed federal agencies to buy Energy Star® labeled products, or products in the top 25-percent of those on the market with respect to energy efficiency, but purchasing habits don't change overnight. The researchers estimated that initially about 20-percent of purchases met those recommended efficiency standards.

Harris and Johnson analyzed 29 different commonly purchased product types in four different scenarios to understand how much energy could be saved by 2010 if government buyers always shopped for efficiency.

The scenario the researchers consider most likely is that energy-efficient purchasing will rise gradually from the initial 20-percent level to 80 percent of all purchases by 2010. This scenario would save federal agencies (and taxpayers) 14.8 trillion BTU per year, or 4.1 percent of all energy used in federal buildings.

Extend these purchasing practices to state and local governments and the savings get even bigger. The researchers estimated that state and local agencies may spend three to five times what the federal government spends on energy-using products. Federal Energy Management Program (FEMP) and Energy Star® programs have begun reaching out to other government buyers. Some states, such as New York, are enacting energy-efficient purchasing requirements similar to federal ones.

According to Harris and Johnson's analysis, energy-efficient purchasing in state and local agencies could save 49 trillion BTU per year, or 3.8 percent of all energy used in state and local buildings. Extending smart purchasing could increase the savings to over $1 billion per year in energy costs for all levels of government combined.

This plan could do more than save taxpayers money. Energy-efficient purchasing at all levels of government could reduce the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere by 2.9 million metric tons each year.

"The government also has a very special role to play as a market leader," says Harris. "Energy-efficient government purchasing can influence other buyers to do the same, and also convince the manufacturers to make more efficient products."

The federal government spends an estimated $12 billion a year on energy-using or energy-related products. That makes it the biggest single customer in the world for just about anything, from computers to microwaves. And if agencies will buy only highly efficient products, that can be a powerful motivator for manufacturers to make their wares more efficient.

"When the President issued an executive order in 1993 that federal agencies must buy Energy Star® computers," notes Harris, "suddenly every manufacturer wanted to be in the program. A similar thing is happening now for products with low standby power."

President Bush's Executive Order in July 2001 directed federal agencies to buy products with low standby power. This was in part a response to a display created by Lab researcher Alan Meier on "leaking electricity" from standby power to common devices such as cell phones, laptop computers, and battery chargers.

If energy-efficient purchasing is such a smart idea, as well as mandated by regulations, why doesn't it happen more often?

One of the main problems is that people can't figure out which product to buy. Busy employees just don't have time to pore over the detailed specifications of all the models on the market every time they need to buy a coffee maker or a computer.

"We decided we had to make it a lot easier for people to buy energy-efficient products," says Harris.

When planning a purchase, buyers can first look for a product with the Energy Star® label and know that it achieves the recommended efficiency. If that type of product is not rated by Energy Star®, they can look at the FEMP website for recommended efficiency guidelines. FEMP also publishes its recommendations as a three-ring binder, available for free.

"The whole idea is to make it easy," says Harris. "We want to make it a no-brainer for the buyer."

Another barrier is that the most energy-conserving products may cost a little more up front, though that cost is often offset in a short time by energy cost savings. Harris is trying to help people understand the real cost of the products they buy. He calls it an "energy mortgage", a calculation of how much money -- in addition to the purchase price -- the buyer is committing to paying in energy operating costs for the life of the product.

"We need to help people get over this bias that the cheapest thing to buy is the cheapest thing to own," he says. "Often that's not true."

To find recommendations for energy-efficient products, visit, or