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Energy Efficiency:
It's the Core Climate Solution

by Joe Romm

London at night, seen from the International Space Station

A major factor driving global warming is our easily-to-correct waste of energy. It costs one-third as much to save energy through efficiency programmes as it does to generate the same amount by building another power plant. Two-thirds of primary energy is lost during conversion to forms used in human activities. The fastest, cheapest, most effective way to reduce carbon emissions is to avoid as many losses as possible. Energy efficiency can do that without affecting GDP - Editor

Energy efficiency is the most important climate solution for several reasons:

1. It is by far the biggest resource.
2. It is by far the cheapest, far cheaper than the current cost of unsustainable energy, so cheap that it helps pay for the other solutions.
3. It is by far the fastest to deploy, without the transmission and siting issues that plague most other strategies.
4. It is “renewable” — the efficiency potential never runs out.

The size of the resource is tremendous, especially in the United States, "the Saudi Arabia of wasted energy". Energy efficiency is the only cheap power left, and has the highest rate of return of any national program. Of the 12 to 14 “wedges” we need to deploy globally over the next half decade (or, preferably faster), about two are electricity efficiency, one is co-generation (recycled energy) and one is vehicle fuel efficiency (ie. cars that average 60 mpg). The International Energy Agency concurs with this.

In the past three decades, electricity per capita has stayed flat in Californian while it has risen 60% in the rest of America. If all Americans had the same per capita electricity demand as Californians, we would cut electricity consumption 40%. And if all of America adopted the same energy efficiency policies that California is now putting in place, the country would never have to build another power plant.

How big is the efficiency potential in this country? More than perhaps any other company, International consultants McKinsey documented how an aggressive energy efficiency strategy sharply lowers the cost of climate protection. Their most comprehensive analysis to date of this country’s energy efficiency opportunity, “Unlocking energy efficiency in the U.S. economy.” Basically, whenever this country gets serious about energy efficiency, we can sharply reduce existing emissions at a large net savings to the public and U.S. businesses.

McKinsey explains that these measures, if fully enacted over the next decade, would save a remarkable 1.2 billion tons of CO2 equivalent, which is 17% of U.S. CO2e emissions in 2005. In other words, the entire 2020 target in the original House of Representatives climate bill could be met with energy efficiency at a net savings to U.S. consumers and businesses of $700 billion. What is even more stunning about this analysis is that it didn’t even look at the transportation sector, where we know huge savings opportunities are possible.

Energy efficiency therefore offers a vast, low-cost energy resource for the U.S. economy – but only if the nation can craft a comprehensive and innovative approach to unlock it. Significant and persistent barriers will need to be addressed at multiple levels to stimulate demand for energy efficiency and manage its delivery across more than 100 million buildings and literally billions of devices.

If executed at scale, a holistic approach would yield gross energy savings worth more than $1.2 trillion, well above the $520 billion needed through 2020 for upfront investment in efficiency measures. Such a program is estimated to reduce end-use energy consumption in 2020 by 9.1 quadrillion BTUs,  23 percent of projected demand, potentially abating up to 1.1 gigatons of greenhouse gases annually.

The bad news is the nation’s not appear likely to address most  of these barriers in a comprehensive fashion anytime soon. The good news is, as California has shown, it isn’t really that hard to do. So whenever we do get serious, the cost of carbon mitigation — integrating efficiency and low-carbon energy — won’t be high. Energy efficiency is THE core climate solution.

Physicist Joe Romm writes the indispensable blog Climate Progress.

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