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Power companies want to beef up the nation's aging electrical grid. At the same time, conservationists are trying to reduce the vast amount of power that we waste in our homes and our offices. And that raises a key question: can conservation be so successful that we don't need a new smarter power grid?

NPR's Richard Harris looks at that today, the last of our stories on the grid.

RICHARD HARRIS: To answer this question, we first need to figure out how much electricity buildings of the future could save.

Unidentified Man #1: Hey, guys.

Unidentified Man #2: How are you doing?

Unidentified Man #1: Good.

(Soundbite of banging)

HARRIS: Here in an office in downtown Washington, D.C. is the new home of the U.S. Green Building Council. They're the folks who push for and certify hyper-efficient construction. Project architect Ken Wilson says the idea here is to make this office a model of efficiency. It's a glimpse of the future.

Mr. KEN WILSON (Project Architect, U.S. Green Building Council): What we're doing in this project is dramatic. The energy load for our lighting is being reduced in half. And we've loaded it up full of all kinds of energy-saving devices that are in some ways a paradigm shift.

HARRIS: For example, no desktop computers at all in this office, only energy-efficient laptops. And even those won't be humming away all the time. The new paradigm is energy is only consumed when it's actually needed. We walk up to a set of cubicles that has something that looks like a smoke detector overhead. The gizmo actually senses human bodies and is wired into the work pod's electrical outlets.

Mr. WILSON: The idea is that when someone leaves the pod, and the occupancy sensor will sense that they're not there, then that outlet shuts off. And so if they've got a task light plugged into that or they've got a laptop computer plugged into it, it goes of.

HARRIS: The laptops revert to battery mode or save active work and shut down, saving energy that would otherwise be wasted. Air conditioners are also set up so they don't cool empty offices.

Brendan Owens from the Green Building Council points out that instead of desks near the windows, there is a broad corridor of white carpet. He says this reflects natural light deep into the work space.

Mr. BRENDAN OWENS (Vice President, LEED Technical Development, Green Building Council): At the peak of the day, when we're getting most of our light outside the space, we can turn off all our interior lights, and that shuts our demand way down.

HARRIS: Is there a kitchen?

Mr. WILSON: There is. Would you like to see it?

HARRIS: I would.

The kitchen is outfitted with two giant stainless steel refrigerators to serve the needs of a young and hip work force that saves energy by riding bikes or transit to work and likes to brown-bag it at lunch.

Mr. WILSON: And so they can get their lunch out of these really highly efficient refrigerators that we've got here.

HARRIS: Architect Ken Wilson says when this project is done it should use about half the electricity of a conventional office. In fact, the job should end up earning the highest possible platinum rating from the U.S. Green Building Council, the very folks who will populate the work pods and offices.

This must have been a lot of fun for you.

Mr. WILSON: It was. This is the mother of all green projects, so I'm thrilled that we were selected to do this.

HARRIS: Since this place is a showcase, Wilson could make many expensive choices and not worry so much about whether they'd ever save enough in energy bills to justify the cost. But Wilson says imagine the energy savings if every office in downtown Washington were able to accomplish what this one is.

Mr. WILSON: Certainly, if you were to take every building and cut the energy use by 50 percent, then that would go a long way of solving the need for more power plants.

HARRIS: And if you don't need more power plants, you don't need more transmission wires, right? Well, not so fast.

Revis James works for the industry-funded Electric Power Research Institute. That organization spends a lot of time looking down the road 20 or 30 years, to see what our future electricity needs will be. James says demand has been growing thanks to a proliferation of energy-hungry microwaves, computers, giant TVs and other plug-in devices. He thinks that wave of invention may be cresting.

Mr. REVIS JAMES (Director, Energy Technology Assessment, Electric Power Research Institute): I think over the time frame of the next 20 to 30 years, I don't really think we're going to see a tremendous change in the fundamental nature of the devices and the types of things that create a demand for electricity.

HARRIS: What will really drive new demand is the steady trickle of a growing economy and constant population growth.

Mr. JAMES: When you take a very moderate growth rating assumption, and you extend that out into time, not just a couple of years, not just five years not just 10 years but you extend that out for 50 years, even modest growth rates translate to significant amounts of energy.

HARRIS: For example, over 30 years, the U.S. Census Bureau projects that there will be another 100 million more people in the United States. James figures that population growth will more than wipe out gains from efficiency programs. What's more, some of the things that are now powered by fossil fuels, like cars and even furnaces, may eventually be phased out as we address climate change.

Mr. JAMES: A time will come when the emissions that we get from natural gas will become too much. We will have to eliminate that, too.

HARRIS: What energy source is left? Electricity, presuming it's from a carbon-free source. So even the optimists acknowledge that we will need to build new transmission lines and to make the existing electric grid smarter.

Unidentified Man #3: What's happening, man?

HARRIS: Which brings us back to Brendan Owens at the U.S. Green Building Council's flashy new digs in Washington, D.C.

Mr. OWENS: We need to have the smart grid work with smarter buildings to really make sure that the potential of both is optimized.

HARRIS: Both approaches are tools for getting the job done but not solutions in themselves.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

SIEGEL: And if you'd like to see how a future smart grid might take shape, there's an interactive map at npr.org/grid.

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