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Energy Efficiency Still Matters

New report establishes the importance of energy efficiency in homes, and beyond, as a low-cost way to avoid the worst effects of climate change

Energy efficiency has driven down energy consumption per household by roughly 16% since 2005, according to data from the Energy Information Administration and the U.S. Census Bureau. Illustration courtesy of ACEEE.

Energy efficiency—the quickest way to cut energy waste in our homes, workplaces, and vehicles—spans so many facets of daily life that it’s easy to take it for granted. In fact, if you attempted to summarize all of the savings and successes that have made energy efficiency such a critical part of a growing U.S. economy over the past few decades, you’d end up with more than 50 compelling indicators across multiple sectors.

That’s exactly what a trio of groups has done in the new report Energy Efficiency Impact, a sweeping, data-driven look at how this powerful energy resource has quietly saved billions of dollars annually, avoided greenhouse gas emissions, and contributed to better quality of life. The compendium, illustrated with a series of charts, is a timely reminder of energy efficiency’s importance as a low-cost way to avoid the worst effects of climate change, even as the Federal Government attempts to thwart policies that continue this momentum.

What’s worth knowing about in this report?

Because of energy efficiency, the report from the Alliance to Save Energy, American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, and the Business Council for Sustainable Energy reaffirms, the U.S. now gets twice as much economic output from the same amount of energy compared to four decades ago. A combination of investments, innovation, and policies that encourage smarter use of energy has made everything from factories to cars to household appliances far more efficient today, saving consumers $800 billion in energy costs annually.

LED bulbs alone save consumers $50 to $150 in electricity costs before burning out. Consumers embrace these benefits, which is why, despite the efforts of the Department of Energy and others to “save” incandescent light bulbs, LEDs have gone from a niche product to wide deployment in less than a decade while sales of incandescent lights have shrunk.

Here are some more important statistics to consider:

  • Without smarter energy use, harmful carbon emissions would be 60% higher than they are today.
  • The 2.3 million U.S. energy efficiency jobs make up 40% of all energy jobs; 70% of the workers are employed by small businesses.
  • Energy use per household has fallen roughly 16% between 2005 and 2018.
  • Appliance and equipment standards have helped deliver savings of up to 80% since 1980, often while improving size, capacity, and performance. And there’s more potential to capture.
  • Improvements in federal standards have nearly doubled the fuel economy of new passenger cars since 1975 while horsepower increased by roughly 70%.
  • The avoided air pollution due to utility and state programs to help people cut energy waste avoided an estimated $540 million in public health costs in 2017.

That’s great, but now what?

This past year saw several more steps in this decades-long march toward improved energy efficiency. States and cities filled the leadership gap at the federal level by ramping up efficiency programs (like installing new windows or more insulation) and enacting their own strict appliance standards and, in some cases, adopting California’s clean car standards. Several new federal standards also took effect this year, improving the energy performance of dehumidifiers, furnace fans, vending machines, certain types of air conditioners, pre-rinse spray valves, and other commercial equipment categories.

In the years ahead, energy efficiency can take us even further. We already know from an analysis released earlier this year that it can cut energy use and greenhouse gas emissions 50% by 2050. It also supports a modernized, flexible grid with more integration of renewables and demand response, which saved 12.2 gigawatts of electricity peak demand in 2017. If demand response is scaled up significantly, it could save 20% of peak load in 2030. And for the more than 60% of low-income households in the U.S. facing a high energy burden, cost-effective energy efficiency solutions could save over $600 a year.

This potential won’t be fulfilled based on inertia and the status quo. Plus, we need strong policies and investment to ensure that everyone benefits from this incredible resource. However, while federal spending on energy efficiency increased slightly between 2016 and 2018, the country’s total estimated energy efficiency investment levels have fallen by almost a fifth. At the same time, the the current administration continues to stall and attempt rollbacks on energy efficiency standards wherever it can.

Energy efficiency continues to require support and concrete action from utilities, consumers, industry, and policymakers at every level of government. Everyone needs to choose the efficient option, take steps to lower our bills, advocate for updated standards across the board, and recognize energy efficiency for what it is: A low-cost powerhouse that can boost the U.S. economy, lift up the most vulnerable communities, and safeguard the planet and its inhabitants.

-Lara Ettenson is director of the energy efficiency initiative in the Climate & Clean Energy Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. This post is republished with permission from the NRDC’s Expert Blog.

4 Comments

  1. Charles Campbell | | #1

    The reason why total residential energy use has remained almost constant while energy use per household has declined is obvious: The population has increased, so there are more households.

    1. KauaiBound | | #3

      Houses have also become bigger, so an energy efficient big home may consume as much as an energy-pig smaller home.

  2. KauaiBound | | #2

    The irony is energy is likely to get cheaper and cost of energy efficiency more expensive as labor costs rise. Natgas and oil are near 20-year lows before adjusting for inflation. It is getting to the point that adding a larger solar array is more cost effective than more stringent energy-saving measures.

    1. Tyler Keniston | | #4

      Yes, markets fail in all kinds of ways.

      The problem I have with defaulting to bigger PV arrays is that it (generally) hosts far greater externalities and potential future costs than sensible EE measures. Take for instance the resource extraction and production costs (true costs—not just market) of the PV, and that it (generally) has a much shorter lifetime than EE measures.

      As another example, consider that as renewables further penetrate the grid (something most here would agree we want) individual PV doesn't levy the same resilience against peak fluctuations as EE when load and demand curves don't match. In other words, PV on the roof is good to reduce matching curve peaks (and storage will help), but if its freezing and cloudy, a leaky home will add considerable peak demand to the overall grid, requiring more expensive capacity build-outs. This is all a bit hypothetical, as we don't truly know what the grid future looks like, but I think there's a pretty strong case for the resilience offered by highly efficient envelopes.

      The cost of EE measures due to labor is an economic input to our local economies, instead of outgoing to panel manufacturers (such as China). And of course the low wages of Chinese factory workers would be subsidizing our infrastructure.

      Lastly, I would be surprised if the lowest hanging fruit on the EE front (e.g air sealing rim joists and attics of old houses) comes out to be higher cost, bang-for-buck, than new solar. Maybe I'll be proved wrong there is short time.

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