Efficiency Can Do More Than You Think

A recent report by the National Academies of Science and Engineering had some interesting things to say about America’s energy usage, starting with the fact that not only do we use more than anyone else, our usage has doubled since 1963.

Among developed countries, the US uses more energy per person and more per dollar of GDP than most of our peers. A good portion of this difference lies in the use of energy efficient technologies. Examining a wide range of these technologies, the report finds that Americans could reduce energy usage by 17-22% by 2020 and by 25-31% by 2030.

That alone would be more than enough to eliminate the need to increase electric generating capacity in spite of both economic and population growth. And that’s before we even start talking about transportation or industry.

The report shows reductions of 35% with advanced lighting technologies such as CFLs and LEDs. Similarly, advanced cooling technologies like driving absorption chillers with waste heat could yield an additional 36% reduction. Some of the barriers keeping this from happening sooner lie in the way that incentives are aligned, often separating the person making the investment from the person receiving the benefit.

Transportation uses 28% of our energy and produces 30% of our GHGs. Three quarters of this comes from cars and trucks. These numbers can be reduced by 30-35% or more with technologies that exist today. The real question is how quickly these new technologies can penetrate the market in significant numbers. Programs like cash for clunkers can help accelerate this, though analysis shows that the savings achieved came with a high price tag.

Amory Lovins endorses the idea of using “feebates” in the book Winning the Oil Endgame.  A feebate system using a combination of rebates and fees to help reduce the average fuel economy of our fleet. New vehicles with fuel economy above the target level receive a rebate, while those below the target are assessed a fee, which helps to fund the program. Proponents claim that a feebate of $70 per mpg above or below the target would be sufficient to improve the national fuel economy by one percent annually.

The story is much the same in industry. Huge improvements can be achieved, but only if the people making the decisions are willing to make the investments. A few examples of possible reductions in the industrial sector, which uses 33% of America’s primary energy, are as follows:

  • Chemical industry: 3-18% by 2020
  • Petroleum industry: 5-54% by 2020 (distillation process)
  • Cement industry: 19-32% by 2020 (kiln improvements &  less limestone)
  • Steel industry: 15-58% by 2025 (heat recovery and waste gas capture)
  • Process industries: 50% (combined heat and power)

Of course, it’s easy to point fingers at industry while forgetting that they are making products for us. If we were to cut back on our consumption, that could make an enormous difference as well.

The major message here is that the technology is leading and the behavior is lagging behind. So how do we get people to make choices and investments that will help society overall–even though it appears to be against their best interest (read: pocketbook) in the short term?

One answer is legislation. Certainly the Obama Administration’s new fuel economy standards will make a huge difference, but only if people go out and buy the new cars. If the recovery is slow, it could take longer for the benefits to take effect. Likewise, many states, including New York, North Carolina and Illinois, have adopted efficiency portfolio standards, which are defined by the EPA as follows: “Energy efficiency portfolio standards (EEPS), also known as energy efficiency resource standards (EERS), are market-based mechanisms that require energy providers to meet quantitative targets for energy savings. These targets are generally set by a regulatory body such as a state legislature or utility commission. They specify numerical targets that electricity service providers are expected to meet on an annual and/or cumulative basis (for example, a set kilowatt-hour level of reduction or percent reduction from projected growth or total sales).”

So government can clearly play a role. But innovative private financing solutions are also beginning to appear. Purchase power agreements, which began to accompany renewable energy purchases, are now being adapted to efficiency purchases. Individuals or businesses “borrow” money for energy efficiency improvements, then pay it back out of the savings they realize on their electric bill. The Green Jobs/Green NY is one such program in which homeowners can finance up to $13,000 in energy efficiency improvements. The program goal is one million energy retrofits statewide over five years while creating 14,000 family-sustaining jobs.

Finally, there are community-based programs, like Low Carbon Diet, where residents and businesses can work with their neighbors to reduce their carbon footprint. Programs like this are already operating in cities like Washington DC and Rochester, NY.

RP Siegel is the Executive Director of Cool Rochester and co-author of Vapor Trails.

RP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering, and engineering.com among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 52 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he traveled as the winner of the 2015 Sustainability Week blogging competition.Contact: bobolink52@gmail.com

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