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Kate Zerrenner headshot

Why Energy Efficiency is Key to Reducing Climate Change Risks

Solar and other renewable power technologies take the spotlight, but energy efficiency works quietly in the background, lowering emissions with no fanfare.
By Kate Zerrenner
Energy Efficiency

Energy efficiency is the workhorse of the clean energy world. Though solar and other renewable energy technologies usually take the spotlight, energy efficiency often works quietly in the background, making huge strides in lowering emissions without the fanfare.

The first-of-its-kind Energy Efficiency Impact Report, a joint effort of the Alliance to Save Energy, the American Council on an Energy Efficiency Economy and the Business Council for Sustainable Energy, takes a look at the society-wide impacts of energy efficiency investments, policies, and innovation. The report also evaluates potential energy savings in residential and commercial buildings, industry, and transportation if further investments are made in the coming years.

The findings are impressive. Since 1980, the report finds, without energy efficiency investments, energy consumption and related emissions would be 60 percent higher than they are and consumers would be paying $800 billion more per year in energy costs. Six policies were responsible for about 20 percent of those cuts, the most impactful being vehicle fuel emissions standards and appliance and equipment efficiency standards. Nevertheless, the report points out that the biggest opportunities are still ahead of us.

Such developments include the deployment of particular smarter technology, like digitalization, as well as artificial intelligence, cloud, and internet of things - all of which could be coupled with more responsive energy management. According to the report, additional investments in energy efficiency could lower U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by an additional 50 percent by 2050.

For those of us who have worked in energy efficiency for a long time, none of this is surprising. While it does not get the attention of flashier technologies, energy efficiency is a powerful weapon in the arsenal to combat climate change. The equation is simple: energy not used means emissions not generated. Efficiency technologies should be implemented first - if the overall demand for electricity is reduced, there is less need for building new power plants or installing new renewable capacity.

Efficiency has often been equated with sacrifice, but efficiency and conservation are not the same thing. Conservation means a change in behavior, as in thinking about turning off the lights when you leave the room, whereas efficiency refers to the technological changes that make energy consumption more efficient, thus lowering demand. Both are critical to lowering emissions, but efficiency requires investments in research, development and deployment by both the private and public sectors.

One thing not addressed in the report, nor in most efficiency reports, is the tremendous positive impact that energy efficiency investments have on water supplies. Just like every megawatt of energy not used means fewer carbon emissions, so it also means less water is needed to generate that megawatt of energy. Traditional forms of energy use tremendous amounts of water. Solar photovoltaic (PV) and wind power use negligible amounts, but energy efficiency technologies and processes use zero water. Reducing demand for energy to consume means reducing the need for additional water supplies to meet that demand.

We are seeing the effects of climate change already. Droughts and heatwaves, in particular, put pressure on our water supplies, and not just in direct ways. When the temperature rises, demand for air conditioning rises, causing energy demand to spike. That means more water is needed to generate more electricity, but there is less water available. The water may also be too hot or too low to effectively cool the power plants. Energy efficiency makes the equipment able to do the same or more with less electricity.

Energy efficiency is one of the most effective water conservation strategies there is, and the reverse is also true. Energy efficiency is a powerful greenhouse gas emissions reduction tool, but its role in reducing demand for water should not be ignored. It may not be the most glamorous thing to talk about it, but it is the most effective climate change tool we have for the energy sector. As we enter a new decade and face an increasing rate of climate change risks, greater investment in energy efficiency can potentially help mitigate those impacts.

Image credit: Markus Spiske/Unsplash

Kate Zerrenner headshot

Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.

Read more stories by Kate Zerrenner