A new generation of products wraps stodgy concept of conservation in sexy new clothes

Not too long ago I described conservation and efficiency as the homely sisters in the sustainable energy world because there were no iconic products that symbolize efficiency the way wind farms and solar panels symbolize their respective industries. I was wrong. Epically wrong.

The U.S. Department of Energy recently published a list of companies that received grants to develop energy efficiency technologies. Many of these products are relatively boring, designed to toil away deep in the bowels of a power generation system, squeezing out delivering a few more watts here and a few more degrees there. Others, though, really capture the imagination. They show that energy efficiency doesn’t have to be a dud in the public eye. It can excite the popular imagination and communicate the message that using less energy is the single nicest thing you can do for the Earth until renewable energy usurps fossil fuels. And some of these efficiency products are, if you’ll grant some latitude on the use of the word, sexy.

Take Nanotrons, a division of Agiltron. Nanotron is working on a long-lasting reflective coating to improve on today’s short-lived coatings. Paint Nanotron’s coating on your building’s roof, then watch your cooling costs drop. Kazak Composites is developing building panels that retain heat and coolness, and “know” when to release them to keep room temperatures even. Lower air conditioning bills in a can? Smart sheetrock? Not bad.

Even the stuff that will work under the covers has a good cool quotient. Machflow Energy, for example, is using exotic gases like krypton and xenon in a heat pump that makes refrigerators, freezers and air conditioners run on less electricity and with no environmental damage. Considering that heating and cooling systems emit over a half billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, according to the DOE, efficiency improvements make a huge difference to the environment. And you thought krypton was Superman’s home planet and xenon was the warrior princess’ brother.

Some products combine efficiency with one of the other marquee sustainable energy sources. Covalent Solar is developing coated glass that improves solar voltaic efficiency by concentrating solar energy on dense arrays of solar cells at the edges of the glass, reducing the overall number of cells needed to produce the same amount of power as a larger solar array. Giner Electrochemical Systems, LLC., is working on a new way to produce hydrogen (fuel cells, anyone?) with less electricity than current production methods.

So back to the use of “sexy.” Maybe “interesting” or “fascinating” would have been more appropriate words to describe these up-and-coming efficiency technologies, but they lack the necessary sizzle. Energy efficiency needs to be in the public’s face – and not just the “earth first” set. They’re already invested. I’m talking rank-and-file consumers. The U.S. consumer market consists of more than 100 million households and generates about 17 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to EnergyStar.gov. As much as 30 percent of the energy used to power household heating, cooling and appliances is wasted. The European Union is ahead of the U.S. on the efficiency front. It has already set a goal of cutting its energy consumption 20 percent by 2020, and it knows it needs the mass audience’s buy-in to reach that goal. “To achieve this goal, it is working to mobilize public opinion, decision-makers and market operators and to set minimum energy efficiency standards and rules on labeling for products, services and infrastructure,” the European Energy Agency writes on its Web site. We’re not going to make worldwide societal changes that reduce energy consumption by talking like Mr. Spock. Efficiency needs an iconic product that combines a little Angelina Jolie sex appeal with some Steve Jobs salesmanship thrown in for good measure.