Updated: October 11, 2023
By Drew Schiavone
Energy Hierarchy Pyramid

The energy pyramid is a decision-making tool that can be applied to various energy-related applications including residential and agricultural settings. This tool shows that cost and complexity of energy actions typically increase as you move from energy assessment activities (bottom), to alternative or renewable energy projects (top). Energy assessment provides an opportunity to evaluate energy use and needs before implementing any tangible measures. Conservation and efficiency measures have numerous benefits by themselves, but are especially important when considering an alternative energy system since the size of an alternative energy system is based on your current energy consumption. Take steps to conserve and use energy resources more efficiently and you will likely be able to install a smaller system that costs less to purchase and operate.

Energy Assessment

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The foundation of the energy pyramid tool is energy assessment. Assessment is an essential element, not only at the beginning of an energy decision process, but throughout the process. Assessment helps to ensure that any actions taken are an appropriate solution to a problem. While it is easy to get excited about wind turbines or photovoltaic panels, you should first understand why you are interested. Knowing your objectives and planning your actions will result in a more informed, successful investment. To optimize the effect of actions you take toward your objectives, you should complete an energy audit. Energy audits help you to understand your energy consumption, efficiency, and opportunities for change – they also provide indications of cost of those changes. Energy audits can be completed through self-assessment checklists or with a formal energy audit. Audits help you to understand your situation more completely and to set appropriate priorities. 

Energy Conservation

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Conservation offers the best return on your investment since it is largely based on behavioral & operational practices. As such, conservation entails simple, everyday actions. Find information that is more detailed in the Home Energy and Farm Energy pages. However, some quick examples include:

  • Hot Water: Set your water heater at or below the recommended 120°F. Use the cold setting on your washing machine.
  • Electricity: Maximize pumping efficiency on existing irrigation systems. Turn off lights, electronics, and other devices when not being used.
  • Space Heating & Cooling: Adjust your thermostat to reduce energy use when you leave a building for more than several hours. In summer, shade east, west, and south-facing windows to reduce unwanted solar heat gain. In winter, allow solar heat gain.
  • Fuel Consumption: On-farm, operate tractors and other powered equipment at optimum efficiency and shade fuel tanks to reduce vapor loss. Check for proper tire inflation and take actions to reduce the number of miles traveled. (back to the top of page)

Energy Efficiency

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Energy efficiency is one of the lowest-cost ways to reduce your energy costs. Efficiency measures entail the use of a material or technology to reduce energy use. An energy efficiency measure is typically a good choice if the energy savings exceed the cost of the equipment before the end of its useful life. With many technologies lasting 10 to 20 years, you can look at any piece of equipment with a simple payback less than this as a good investment. Energy-efficient equipment may have other benefits, such as a productivity increase or labour savings, that make them a good choice despite a longer payback period. Examples of efficiency measures may include:

  • Hot Water: Install WaterSense labeled showerheads and fixtures which meet EPA's specifications for water efficiency and performance. Insulate hot water pipes and water heaters.
  • Electricity: Use variable speed drives on irrigation systems. Use surge protectors or power strips to completely turn off electrical devices that use standby power. Install Energy Star-labeled appliances, machinery and equipment where available.
  • Space Heating & Cooling: Check your building’s insulation levels and add more if needed. Have a blower door test conducted to find air leaks from doors, windows, electrical outlets, etc. Install programmable thermostats to adjust energy use automatically. Plant deciduous trees/plants that block summer sun from entering windows.
  • Transportation: Consider the purchase of a more fuel-efficient tractor or vehicle.

To understand the technologies that best apply to your home or farm, and the payback period based on your specific circumstances, consider having a professional energy audit to analyze your energy consumption and make recommendations.

Time of Use Management

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Electricity costs often vary over the course of the day. Running equipment during peak hours can be costly due to peak energy charges and demand charges. By running equipment during off-peak hours and reducing peak demand, energy costs can often be considerably reduced. Examples include shifting irrigation or milking to off-peak hours.

Alternative Energy

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After completing conservation and efficiency measures, consider alternative energy such as anaerobic digesters, solar photovoltaic, solar thermal, geothermal and wind turbines. However, there are many factors to consider before purchasing and installing an alternative energy system. The information available on the Maryland Energy Extension website is designed to help you understand these factors so that you can be a more informed consumer. However, you should work with a qualified installer to design, site, and install alternative energy systems. 

Additional Information

Explore other topics in this series:

  • Wind turbines and solar panel

    Alternative Energy

    Overview of alternative energy sources in Maryland.

  • Smog coming from Power Station

    Carbon and Climate

    The impact of energy on greenhouse gas emissions.

  • Coal Generation Plant near bay

    Conventional Energy

    Overview of conventional energy sources in Maryland.

  • Electrical Outlet

    Energy Defined

    Overview of Maryland's energy production and use.

  • Energy Policy Word Cloud

    Energy Policy

    Maryland's energy goals and Renewable Portfolio Standard.

  • Energy Hierarchy Pyramid

    --Energy Priorities--

    Decision-making tool for energy saving measures.

  • Ground Source Heat Pump Tubing in Field Trenches


    Explore geothermal heat pumps for your home, farm or business.

  • Water flowing in creek


    Explore micro-hydropower for your home or farm.

  • Inflation Reduction Act Paperwork Stamped

    Inflation Reduction Act

    Save money and energy through the IRA

  • Wind turbine in overcast sky


    Explore wind power for your home, farm or business.