Straight Talk

In an effort to provide our members with timely and relevant information regarding our current national and local energy situation and the environmental challenges we face, we’ll be providing various information here on a wide variety of topics. Our goal is to update them on a regular basis so please check here regularly to see what is new.

Beware of Energy Claims
By Elizabeth McGowan, CRN Lean times understandably motivate people to explore money-saving options. At what cost, however, might that pursuit of savings come? Customers wanting to lower their electric bills most likely already know the sage advice about insulating their homes, investing in Energy Star appliances and unplugging devices they are not using. But isn’t there a quicker, easier way? What about investing in one of those “magic boxes or cylinders” that promises to slice home electricity costs by up to 50%? Here’s a heads up. If a product sounds too good to be true on the energy-savings front, it probably is. Dangerous (Maybe Illegal) but Effective A pocket-size, seemingly innocuous item sold online—called the RPU-190—falls into this grouping. Engineers agree that there’s no doubt that as promised, this $200 piece of copper wire will cut a homeowner’s electricity bills in half. The catch is that attorneys and municipal and state authorities nationwide also agree that installing such a device is against the law because it requires tampering with a meter and stealing power from a utility. “I’m concerned that people could be taken in by this thing pretty easily,” says Thomas Suggs, vice president of engineering for Middle Tennessee EMC in Murfreesboro. “The safety aspect jumped out at me immediately.” While Suggs says he has never before noticed such a product for sale, he has seen customers try to bypass electricity bills by jamming copper tubing, 16-penny nails or a kitchen fork into the meter tabs. Suggs began researching the RPU-190 after a colleague forwarded him a link to the product’s website in January. While online, he was alarmed to find a promotional video featuring a young woman clad in shorts, a T-shirt, and lineman’s gloves pulling out the meter and inserting the RPU-190 into the meter. That enables the installer to create a circuit that bypasses one of two “legs” of power flowing into a home. The video failed to warn viewers about what Suggs and all qualified engineers know. Power surging through a compromised meter can cause an electrical catastrophe. Furthermore, a short circuit could produce an arc flash bright enough to cause temporary blindness, hot enough to melt metal, and powerful enough to launch fragments of shrapnel-like debris. “Anytime you get into those meter bases, you’re running a risk,” Suggs says. “With an arc flash, somebody could get hurt or killed.” Suggs wasted no time acting. The video was removed from the website after Suggs contacted Electric Hero, the San Diego company marketing the RPU-190. Also, numerous webmasters removed the product from their websites once Suggs alerted them about its hazards via Internet bulletin boards. Suggs also used e-mail to inform other electric cooperatives about potential problems with the product. His diligence piqued John Ohlhausen’s attention in Hondo, TX. Ohlhausen, manager of engineering services for Medina Electric Cooperative, opted to be proactive and order an RPU-190, just in case co-op members had questions. “We wanted to have one on hand, study it, and be knowledgeable about it in case questions arose,” Ohlhausen explains, adding that it was painful to spend so much money on what he suspected was a hoax. “This way, members can take a look at it before wasting their own $200 on something they can’t use legally.” The product arrived in a manila, bubble-wrap envelope with a simple return address of Maitland, FL. Ohlhausen describes it as a poorly constructed copper shunt coated with black insulated paint. It offers minimal resistance and no energy storage capability, he continues, adding that poor construction puts its worth between $15 and $20, at most. “Most credible products have a return policy, there was no evidence of one with the RPU-190” Ohlhausen says, adding that the package also included a hand-labeled amateurish CD with vague installation instructions with regards to safety. The “Frequently Asked Questions” section of the Electric Hero website offers readers a series of 11 evasive, circuitous, and nonsensical answers. For example, the answer to “Am I stealing electricity?” is “No you are simply changing the flow of energy through the power lines into your house from an unstable current to a stable one.” The response to “Is it legal?” is “Yes, installing the RPU-190 correctly is not illegal.” And the answer to “Will the electric company fine me for use of this product?” is “No, the only way the electric company can determine the use of this product is if you stop paying your electric bills or install it improperly, damaging their equipment.” Suggs’s e-mail exchanges with Electric Hero deteriorated rather quickly when a company representative asked Middle Tennessee’s legal department to “forward us the law stating what you said to be illegal and how you would pursue that.” That same e-mail, full of misspellings, ended with a personal dig at Suggs: “I bet since you are th (sic) VP you are getting one heck of a end year bonus like all other manufacture (sic) have this year.” Nobody at Electric Hero responded to a reporter’s recent phone calls and e-mails requesting comment about the RPU-190. A disclaimer on Electric Hero’s website stated: “We WILL NOT answer e-mails from anyone asking about illegal activities, or how to use our products for illegal activities. They will be automatically deleted.” Deceptive and Ineffective Numerous products fall into the deceptive and ineffective category. One to achieve significant notoriety is the Xpower Energy Saver. Forum Trading Inc. was collaborating with several other companies to sell a $200 cylinder they claimed consumers could plug into the wall to trim electricity consumption by 25%, and extend the life of household appliances. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott issued a temporary restraining order against Forum Trading’s sales last spring, and the case is scheduled to go to trial later this year. Texas-based Forum was selling Xpower through a multi-level marketing scheme, Abbott said. “With Texas families focused on energy prices and seeking cost savings, these defendants are promising lower electricity bills but failing to deliver,” Abbott said in ordering a halt to sales. “Experts who reviewed the defendants’ products discovered no actual savings for well-intentioned purchasers.” Engineers at the University of Texas at Austin concluded that the Xpower could produce no more than a 0.06% reduction in electric use in an average house. Laboratory tests revealed that the product is an ordinary capacitor. Capacitors are usually employed in electronic circuits to store energy or differentiate between high- and low-frequency signals. Unfortunately, it’s a buyer beware world with all of these devices, says Dan Greenberg, an associate director at E Source. The Boulder, CO-based organization provides independent research to utilities, major energy users, and others in the retail energy marketplace. “A lot of these salespeople make unrealistic claims for energy savings,” Greenberg says. “They might not even know their claims are unrealistic because the distributor or vendor believes claims from the manufacturer that aren’t true.” “It’s so important for consumers to be skeptical,” Greenberg emphasizes. “They really should check in with their co-op before making any purchase.” Generically, Greenberg says, the legal but rather ineffective devices such as Xpower promise to “fix up” a consumer’s power in some way. The device likely won’t harm anything, but nor will it save the buyer a noticeable amount of money on his power bill. He warns potential customers to be leery about energy saving promises from vendors of products that use capacitors to improve power factor. Power factor is simply a measure of efficiency with which the power is being delivered by the distribution system. Increasing power factor improves the alignment of current and voltage wave forms, so less current is required for a motor to do its job, but an appliance’s power draw is completely unaffected, so financial savings provided to the customer will likely hover under 1%, Greenberg says. He also notes that industrial and commercial customers often pay a fee to their utility for having low power factor. Avoiding such fees can make power factor correction economically attractive. However, those penalties do not apply to residential customers. No Silver Bullet Saving energy is not as simple as plugging a device into an outlet or a meter. Electric co-ops invest millions of dollars every year into researching the latest energy efficient and renewable energy options on the market. Many co-ops offer energy audits, weatherization programs, rebates and other assistance to member-owners seeking answers about energy efficiency. In today’s economic climate, marketers have found a niche offering a range of products that they promise will deliver quick and easy energy savings. The soundest advice to follow in this climate is: buyer beware. Instead of wasting money on schemes that fall short, co-op member-owners looking for answers are encouraged to work collaboratively with their local electric co-op. Elizabeth McGowan is an energy journalist with Energetics Inc. in Washington, D.C., and writes articles for the Cooperative Research Network’s Tech Surveillance. The Cooperative Research Network® is a service of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, a trade association headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. The mission of the Cooperative Research Network is to monitor, evaluate and apply technologies that help electric cooperative utilities control costs, increase productivity, and enhance service to their consumer–members.

It's Not Easy Being Green
Electricity has been generated by hydro, wind, biomass, and other renewable resources in the United States for more than a century. Today, 11 percent of the power electric cooperatives provide comes from renewables, compared to 9 percent for other types of utilities. And this total will only continue to grow if Congress, as expected, follows the lead of 28 states and the District of Columbia and sets renewable portfolio standards (RPS) for electric utilities. These laws require investor-owned utilities, competitive electric generation suppliers, as well as some municipal electric systems and electric cooperatives to add increasing amounts of “clean and green” electricity to their retail power supply mix (ranging from 10 percent to 30 percent) by a certain date (mostly between 2018 and 2025). No two state-based RPS laws are the same, mainly because access to renewable resources differs by region. Hawaii, Nevada, and North Carolina allow energy efficiency to count toward half of their RPS. Ten states including Texas, Nevada, and Illinois, include solar water heating. Others specify certain percentages for a specific type of generation. One proposal being considered by Congress would create a renewable electricity standard (RES), requiring all electric utilities to obtain 25 percent of their retail power supply from renewable sources by 2025. A national RES would likely augment, rather than pre-empt, existing state RPS laws. Since renewable energy technology generally produces power for a much higher cost per kilowatt-hour than conventional fuels, such as coal, natural gas, or nuclear, RPS and RES mandates directly increase the price of electricity. Electric cooperatives are working closely with Congress and other groups in an effort to keep electric bills as affordable as possible. What can you do? Electric cooperatives are asking elected officials to address climate change issues in an affordable and environmentally responsible fashion. We’re ready to provide insight into how various policy proposals like RPS and RES will impact consumers, and we’ll urge lawmakers to reach the right answers. In unity with 42 million other electric co-ops consumers around the country, ask your U.S. representative and senators to work with electric cooperatives to keep electric bills affordable. Get involved in this effort by participating in the Our Energy, Our Future grassroots campaign at Sources: Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency, NRECA

Adding it up with Carbon Footprints
Carbon dioxide exists everywhere. It’s in every breath we take; it keeps trees and plants around us lush and green; it even gives our soft drinks fizz. But because the ever-present gas also helps holds the sun’s heat in our atmosphere, it has taken on an edge of notoriety in recent years. Increasing amounts of carbon dioxide emitted from sources like factories, cars, and power plants have been blamed for contributing to climate change (along with a list of other “greenhouse gases,” including methane). Carbon dioxide molecules can last in the atmosphere for a century or more, and many experts see too much of it as a bad thing. The idea of a “carbon footprint” has been developed to tally the amount of carbon dioxide anything emits, directly or indirectly—from a coal-fired power plant to a family of four. Technically, each of us expands our own carbon footprint every time we exhale, although the amount really adds up when it comes to burning fossil fuels like coal, gasoline, and natural gas. Burning these fuels releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and everyone connected to those emissions (such as a family driving a car or using electricity) boosts their own carbon footprint. The sources making up carbon footprints are often broad in scope, spanning state and sometimes national boundaries. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) breaks sources of carbon dioxide emissions into three categories, applied here to a family as an example: direct emissions, such as from the family minivan; indirect emissions from generation of the electricity they use; and all other indirect emissions, from trash to the manufacture of every item bought. (For example, how much electricity went into making your television, and how many miles did a tractor-trailer drive to get it to the store?) All things considered, the average U.S. household is responsible for 21 tons of carbon dioxide a year, according to the EPA, an amount that would take more than four acres of pine trees to soak up. Many companies are using the idea of carbon footprints to show consumers just how much carbon dioxide was released in getting one particular item to them. PepsiCo, for example, recently determined that 3.75 pounds of carbon dioxide are emitted for every half-gallon carton of Tropicana Pure Premium Orange Juice it produces. With this information, steps can be made to reduce emissions. This applies to companies and individuals alike. A family can trim their carbon footprint by trading in the minivan for a more fuel-efficient vehicle, and by making their home more energy efficient to cut back on electricity use. Best of all, these measures not only cut carbon emissions but gasoline and electric bills as well. As Congress considers legislation to limit carbon dioxide emissions, associated costs will impact everyone. Consumers paying electric bills, and every company making products with electricity generated from fossil fuels, will foot the tab. Electric cooperatives are asking elected officials to address climate change issues in an affordable and environmentally responsible fashion. We’re ready to provide insight into how various policy proposals will affect consumers, and we’ll urge lawmakers to reach the right answers. In unity with 42 million other electric co-ops consumers around the country, ask your U.S. representative and senators to work with electric cooperatives to keep electric bills affordable. Get involved in this effort by participating in the Our Energy, Our Future grassroots campaign at To calculate your household carbon footprint, visit: To calculate your business’ carbon footprint, visit: Sources: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; PepsiCo; National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

Adding it up with Carbon Footprints
Managing Carbon Dioxide 

Technology: The Missing Piece of the Puzzle
The idea of a market-based cap-and-trade system to cut power plant emissions isn’t new—it has been used successfully since 1993 to reduce acid rain by curbing sulfur dioxide. But adopting a nationwide cap-and-trade tax for cutting carbon dioxide emissions, as has been proposed, comes with a different set of problems: while cost-effective solutions existed for removing sulfur dioxide from smokestack emissions, there currently aren’t any for cutting carbon dioxide on the scale proposed in new legislation.

In the United States today, 70 percent of electricity is generated by coal and natural gas-fired power plants, all of which would be required to reduce carbon dioxide emissions under a cap-and-trade scheme. Some supporters of such a program point to carbon capture and storage technology (CCS) as a means of reducing emissions. But CCS remains largely on the drawing board.

“Carbon capture and storage, which separates carbon dioxide from power plant emissions and forces the gas underground for permanent storage, has never been demonstrated on the needed scale for a large base-load power plant, ” explains Ed Torrero, executive director of the Cooperative Research Network, the research arm of the Arlington, VA-based National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA). “Electric co-ops are taking an active role in researching this technology, although it will require billions of dollars in investment to establish a utility-scale prototype. It could be decades before CCS is a viable option for cutting carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.”

Curbing sulfur dioxide emissions calls for different technology altogether. Work on finding a way to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions had taken on urgency by the early 1980s; those emissions from power plants, factories, and refineries can react with other chemicals in the atmosphere and fall back to earth as acidic rain or fine dust.

A cap-and-trade system for acid rain was established as part of the federal Clean Air Act of 1990. It required sources of sulfur dioxide to cut emissions by investing in various proven and readily-available “off-the-shelf” technologies.

As a result, some coal-fired power plants switched to burning low-sulfur coal to reign in emissions; others installed scrubbers. The efforts were effective: by 2002, sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants had shrunk 41 percent lower than in 1980 levels, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“Utilities had options when it came to reducing sulfur dioxide,” notes Kirk Johnson, NRECA vice president of environmental issues. “Technology was available, as was low-sulfur coal. While both came with a price, these cost increases were manageable and produced immediate, measurable environmental benefits. This wouldn’t be the case with carbon dioxide—off-the-shelf options simply don’t exist today.”

If applied to carbon dioxide today, a cap-and-trade auction scheme would send electric bills skyrocketing unless carbon dioxide reduction goals account for the limited available technology. Electric co-ops are working to help member of Congress understand these and other limitations before enacting energy and climate change policy.. It’s time to speak up—urge your U.S. representative and senators to work with electric cooperatives to keep electric bills affordable while meeting climate change goals through the Our Energy, Our Future™ grassroots campaign—get involved today at