At a December holiday party, the host handed me a newspaper clipping and asked me what I thought of the energy pyramid mentioned in the article. I hadn't read the article, so I told him I would read it and get back to him. Of course, when I found time to look into it, I didn't have the article with me. So I decided to do a little research on energy pyramids on the internet. It turns out that I found several variations on the theme, including the one mentioned in the article handed to me by my friend and neighbor, Larry.

The Energy Use Pyramid, featured in the Washington Post article Larry asked about, was designed by architects Peter Pfeiffer and Betsy del Monte. It's a valuable resource, especially for new building design. It clearly shows that most of the emphasis should be placed on design elements that use no power at all, such as solar orientation and tight building construction, because these are often the most cost-effective solutions. In some cases, such as building orientation, the design feature may cost little or nothing at all.

The next emphasis should be placed on using power efficiently, or in other words, selecting energy-efficient equipment and methods. Although purchasing appliances with higher energy efficiencies or prescribing methods that cut down on energy use may cost more initially, it pays off in the long term. Then, and only then, should you emphasize producing your own power.

In other words, incorporating solar energy or wind energy into your home makes sense only after maximizing the efficiency of your home. Solar and wind energy currently cost more than conventional grid electricity except under some uncommon circumstances. Up to a certain high level of efficiency, eliminating the need for kilowatt-hours of electricity or British thermal units (Btu) of heat typically costs less than supplying that same amount electricity or heat with solar or wind energy.

Graphic depicting the Energy Use Pyramid: A guide to energy saving choices. The pyramid had three. The bottom level recommends people don't use power. Tasks include downsize house and systems, solar orientation, tight buildings, and shade windows and walls with overhangs, awnings, and trees. The middle level says to use power efficiently with efficient appliances, high SEER air conditioners and heat, and fluorescent and LED light bulbs. The top level says to produce your own power with solar photovoltaics, solar hot water, and wind turbines.

Energy Use Pyramid courtesy of: Peter L Pfeiffer, FAIA; BARLEY & PFEIFFER ARCHITECTS; Austin, Texas www.BarleyPfeiffer.com, with assistance from Betsy Del Monte, AIA; BECK ARCHITECTURE; Dallas, Texas.

The Florida Solar Energy Center developed the Energy Policy Pyramid© to help decision makers focus on cost-effective energy policies. It's similar to the Energy Use Pyramid, but with a broader focus and a different audience.

Energy Policy Pyramid with Design at the bottom, Efficiency at the next level up, Conservation above that, and Renewables and Fossil at the top level.

Energy Policy Pyramid© courtesy of: Robin Vieira, Florida Solar Energy Center

The utility company Minnesota Power developed The Pyramid of CONSERVATION—residential version to help its electric customers conserve energy. It's useful not only for designing new homes but also for improving the energy performance of existing homes.

This energy pyramid targets specific areas you can tackle based on cost and complexity, helping you prioritize. It identifies precise actions, areas of the home, and appliances to target and classifies them into 10 categories, with the easiest and least expensive on the bottom of the pyramid. Start at the bottom and work your way up the pyramid, as time and finances allow.

Graphic showing the Pyramid of Conservation. As you move bottom to top, the complexity and investment increase. Bottom level is Understanding, including in-home energy audits, home energy yardstick, and new construction design. Next level is Low-Cost No-Cost Improvements and Plug Load, including energy choices, temperature settings, turning things off, TVs, computers, appliances, and game systems. Next level up is Lighting, including CFLs, fixtures, and LED. Next level up is Air Sealing, including attic walls, foundation, caulking, weatherstripping, and sealing attic bypasses. Next level up is Appliances, including dishwasher, clothes washer, refrigerator, and dehumidifier. Next level up is Insulation and Ventilation, including attic, walls, and foundation. Next up is Water Heating, including drain water heat recovery, SmartPak, and solar thermal. Next is Heating and Cooling, including heat pumps, furnaces, and air conditioning. Next is Window replacement. At the top level is Renewable Options, including solar electric and wind.

The Pyramid of CONSERVATION, residential version courtesy of: Minnesota Power

Sorry, guys. If you're looking for ammunition to convince your wife to install those "sexy" solar panels or wind turbines on your rooftop, look elsewhere. But if you're trying to find out which energy efficiency/conservation step to take next or need help convincing your spouse it makes sense, then these may help. Also, I'm sure there are many other handy energy pyramids out there on the internet.

So, Larry, if you're reading this: Yes, I think the Energy Use Pyramid is a helpful tool. So are some other energy pyramids. Hmmm, why not use an energy pyramid myself when explaining which actions to take next to cut down on energy waste?

John Lippert is an employee of Energy Enterprise Solutions, a contractor for EERE. He assists with technical reviews of content on the Energy Savers Web site.