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Amazingly Good Energy News: U.S. Energy More Secure and Reliable than Ever, Thanks to Efficiency

Peter Lehner

Posted October 7, 2013

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Which energy source has had the biggest impact on meeting America’s energy needs over the past forty years? It’s not coal. It’s not oil. Not wind or nuclear. Believe it or not, it’s even bigger than all of those combined. Our greatest energy resource is energy efficiency—wasting less, and making the most out of the energy we already have.

According to NRDC’s groundbreaking, comprehensive analysis of key indicators, America’s energy position, in terms of security and reliability, has never been stronger. That’s reassuring, and perhaps surprising, in a time when bad energy news (turmoil in the Middle East, fracking, oil spills) seems to dominate the headlines. For nearly 40 years, our economic growth has been rapidly outpacing our energy consumption. Our businesses and industries are producing and selling more stuff, and using less energy to do so. We used less energy last year than we did in 1999—despite running an economy that’s 25 percent bigger.

How have we accomplished this growth without an accompanying boom in energy demand, and a drastic uptick in carbon pollution?

In a word, efficiency.

Our home appliances and electronics have been meeting increasingly tough federal efficiency standards. Thanks to standards like these (which NRDC has been helping push through for decades), electricity consumption from 2000 onward has been growing slower than the population. Remarkable, when you consider not only how many more people are using electricity, but how many more gadgets we have at home now that we did at the turn of the century, how many more chargers are plugged into every wall socket.

Refrigerators are bigger and fancier than ever, yet they use about one-quarter the energy they did 40 years ago, while the cost of owning and operating a fridge has fallen about 70 percent.

We’re using less oil now we did in 1973, when the economy was one-third its present size. We’re going farther than ever on each gallon of gas, thanks to federal fuel efficiency standards. The latest set of standards are expected to cut oil use 2.1 million barrels by 2025. That’s more oil than we import from any OPEC country.

Thanks to efficiency, we’re already on track to meet President Obama’s target of a 17 percent reduction in carbon pollution by 2020. That’s progress, but scientists agree we need to do more in order to stabilize the climate. We can get there if we really put efficiency to work—and studies show we have plenty of opportunity to do so.

President Obama made efficiency a cornerstone of his climate plan because he knows it works. The next big opportunity for energy efficiency is our homes and buildings, which are responsible for about one-third of U.S. global warming emissions. Tightening building energy codes and upgrading our homes and buildings with better insulation, energy-efficient equipment and appliances will reduce energy waste, save money for owners and tenants, and bring down carbon pollution. A new model building energy code, jointly proposed by NRDC and several leading homebuilders, could cut home energy use up to 20 percent, and, by 2030, reduce as much carbon pollution as 158 power plants produce in a year.

Federal and state governments can move things along faster by continuing to update efficiency standards for vehicles, buildings and appliances. But ironically, most utilities are penalized when they help their customers become more efficient, because electricity rates are set with a target revenue in mind. If customers use less electricity, utilities’ revenues fall short. Regulators can fix this disincentive by allowing for small yearly rate adjustments to correct for changes in sales, ensuring that utilities and customers who do the right thing aren’t penalized. Half the states have measures like this in place for some utilities, but progress has been slow. And only two publicly owned utilities, in Los Angeles and Glendale, have made the change.

When we get more efficient, good things happen. Our existing efficiency efforts are already saving Americans hundreds of billions of dollars a year, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs, and reducing carbon pollution, all while costing far less than developing new sources of energy.

In contrast, continuing to burn coal and oil in our power plants and gas tanks costs us more than $100 billion each year in premature death and illness, hospital bills, work days lost, and other health costs. That figure doesn’t include the billions of dollars in damage from extreme weather, which is fueled by carbon pollution (and cost taxpayers nearly $100 billion in 2012), the national security costs of our oil addiction, and the harm done to ecosystems from power plant and vehicle pollution.

When it comes to energy, it makes sense to focus on what works. Energy efficiency should be our priority, not another checkbox on the list. It’s the cleanest, most cost-effective, most productive energy resource we have, and we need to use more of it.   

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Michael BerndtsonOct 8 2013 10:52 AM

This groundbreaking analysis recap doesn't say anything about natural gas. So I'm assuming its cool, no?

NRDC pulled all this data from various federal governmental websites including DOE, EPA, EIA, NIST and NREL and others. It's not groundbreaking it's simply spreadsheet column/row cell superpositioning and presentation retrofit. Please, don't use "groundbreaking" in a sentence. Assuming NRDC doesn't want to come off as a shill or PR flack.

Given the political environment we're in, there may not be funding for those awesome data dumps provided by the federal government for NRDC to publish more groundbreaking reports. Like the one by ICF International for promoting natural gas production - despite shale plays loaded with nat. gas liquids for tar sands diluent and oil, i.e. Illinois New Albany Shale.

Ralph CavanaghOct 8 2013 04:48 PM

Michael, I appreciate your comment and I’m responding in my capacity as a coauthor of the report and a Co-Director of NRDC’s Energy Program. The report is primarily an account of four decades of U.S. energy efficiency progress, not a natural gas assessment, and I am hoping you will agree that NRDC has been very much part of a truly remarkable energy efficiency story (I joined part of the way through, in 1979). I think it’s a strength, not a weakness, of the report that it’s based largely (although not exclusively) on published data from official government sources; you will note that we also include material from a recent Bipartisan Policy Center report with which I was involved. Our aim in the NRDC report was to present the energy efficiency story in a compelling and original way that would vindicate Peter’s use of “groundbreaking” in his blog, although the best way for readers to resolve any difference of views on that characterization is to take a look at the report itself. I will note that that New York Times found the principal conclusions important and original enough to justify publication of a very recent op ed (on September 13). Best regards, Ralph Cavanagh

Bernadette BarberOct 17 2013 03:21 AM

I agree with the reduction of waste and a wonderful measure and goal. I am promoting on farm seasonal slaughter and processing. Pasture based farming is the future. Less fossil fuel waste, less food waste and less gridlock from job travel. People can have jobs embedded in their communities. Carbon is sequestered in the soil and creates the organic element. one pound of organic soil holds four pounds of water, thus reducing run off or flooding. If you all can support food freedom legislation as a measure of reduction of energy, it would be most beneficial to the earth and local economy! thanks

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