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New Book Says Potential for Efficiency Is Much Larger than Previously Thought

Frances Beinecke

Posted September 2, 2010

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In yesterday’s New York Times, NRDC’s David Goldstein said that America could reduce our projected energy use by more than 80 percent in the next 40 years.

That may sound like a bold claim, but in his new book, Invisible Energy: Strategies to Rescue the Economy and Save the Planet, David explains exactly why these enormous gains in energy efficiency are possible.

David is a physicist who won a MacArthur Genius Award in 2002 for his work demonstrating that refrigerators, air conditioners, and other appliances could be designed to use less energy and still reduce consumer costs and in some cases even cut manufacturers’ production costs.

With his latest book, David has undertaken the task of assessing how much more efficient America can become.

Conventional estimates—including from the National Academy of Sciences and McKinsey & Company—say we could cut our energy use by about 20 percent by 2020. The authors of these studies, however, concede that their estimates are too low.

Because as David points out, virtually all these studies are based on a model that assumes technology is frozen—that in 2020 or 2030, we will still be using the technologies developed in 2010.

Yet who would imagine that the TVs, cameras, and laptops we buy in 2030 will be the same as the ones we have today? We may not know what they’ll look like, but we know these products will be faster, cheaper, and more effective. A look at the history of flat-screen TVs illustrates just how rapidly these changes occur.

In his new book, David takes what we know about innovation curves in other technologies and applies it to the realm of efficiency. He concludes that we could reduce our energy use by 30 percent in 2020 and by 88 percent in 2050.

Considering that every kilowatt of energy we save is a kilowatt we don’t have to produce at a coal-fired, natural gas, or nuclear power plant, David’s estimates confirm that efficiency is our most potent weapon in the fight to curb climate change.

They also reveal how efficiency saves us money and generates jobs. David draws from his three decades of experience shaping efficiency measures in California to point out that without those measures, the average Californian’s utility bill would cost at least twice as much as it does today. These same measures have enabled California households to redirect their expenditures toward other goods and services, creating about 1.5 million full-time jobs with a total payroll of $45 billion.

Moreover, David shows in Invisible Energy how the policies we need to establish vibrant markets in efficiency are also the policies that will cure the economic imbalances that caused the Great Recession.

David calls his assessment “an entirely reasonable scenario.” He isn’t looking at pie-in-the-sky scenarios. Instead, he factors in technologies that manufacturers plan to introduce but haven’t announced yet, technologies they could introduce in the next year or two if they had the financial incentives, and finally, technologies they could develop if they were systematically encouraged by market-enhancing policies and incentives that promote efficiency.

Over the 30 years he has worked at NRDC, David has been a persuasive advocate for efficiency, but he is first and foremost a scientist—a scholar grounded in research.

What I find so inspiring about David’s book is that his research has illuminated a very hopeful proposition: America can become vastly more efficient, and we can do it thanks to our track record of innovation.




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Margie KronewitterSep 3 2010 06:25 AM

I put spiral flourescent bulbs in my new rental. The last tenant had a $250 per month electric bill. I'm a nightowl and my average is $75. My kitchen light lights the whole house.

Jim Bullis, Miastrada CompanySep 8 2010 02:20 PM

I wonder if the book points out that by conversion of heat using appliances that use electricity to make that heat to natural gas instead, such appliances would cut their CO2 output by about 85% due to the avoidance of the central power plant losses and better heat production per unit of CO2 from natural gas than from coal. The marginal reduction in electricity use would directly impact coal fired electricity generation; the case is simple in many places and even in California the economic impacts that ripple through the National markets mean that coal is the ultimate basis of first saved power.

Jim Bullis, Miastrada CompanySep 8 2010 02:48 PM

Efficiency from appliances, even doing the things I suggest, will probably not be sufficient.

If the Democratic political party would like to hold control of government they need creative ideas and action of magnitude that will matter.

Perhaps there is also some realization that the economy is having some difficulty, and some of the obvious proposals circulating might be standing in the way of economic recovery. Specifically in this category is the EPA stated intention to insist on best available technology for power plants along with the recent report from them saying that 'carbon' capture is technically feasible; yet they go on to speak of costs in the range of $95 per ton of CO2 for such capture. A calculation of the impact per ton of coal shows that this would act as an instant ban on coal fired electric power, and almost a ban even on natural gas as a fuel for electric power production. So is there any wonder that there is no industrial expansion with that threat hanging over the heads of those who might be expanding manufacturing employment?

However, this is not to say there are no creative possibilities that would be both effective in 'capturing carbon' and enhancing prospects for a competitive industrial system.

President Hu of China gave a hint of a big step that could be taken, which he says they will implement. Even though it is a big step in comparison with our baby step solutions, it would still only accomplish capture of about 5% of the emitted CO2 from their power plants. The statement was that they "will increase forests to establish -- 1.6 billion tonnes of forest mass by 2020 relative to 2005."

How might we act similarly? And even do it on a scale that will really get the job done? ---

A 2500 mile canal running from Canada to Mexico through mostly desert regions with standing forest cultivated ten miles on each side would capture and hold our entire rate of release of CO2 from electric power production.

Some creative government action would be needed to negotiate water use and distribution with Canada, but they seem serious about climate change issues, they would seem likely to cooperate.

Now here is a public works project with prospects to repay the cost in produce, not only ultimate forest products, but crop production that could come along beyond the forest zone based on water availability.

This is not imagination gone wild; California built a three hundred mile aquaduct, started in 1963, and it has cause a massive increase in productivity from otherwise barren land of Central California. It surely shows how to go about the much bigger task I describe.

Jim Bullis, Miastrada CompanySep 9 2010 02:15 PM

I put some quantitative information about the cost of planned EPA action in my notes to Secy of Energy, Dr. Steven Chu at:

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