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Is the U.S. Cowardly in Its Approach to Energy Efficiency?

• July 02, 2013 • 5:22 PM

A spiral-type integrated compact fluorescent bulb. (PHOTO: PICCOLO NAMEK/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

There’s a raft of national benefits to being more energy efficient that don’t need to invoke climate or politics. So what’s the hold-up?

How efficiently does the United States use its energy? According to the first of what’s expected to be an annual report (PDF) from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, the answer is bright yellow and on the cusp of avocado green. The colorful result, the advocacy non-profit explains, means that the U.S. has made some progress on energy efficiency (hence the yellow portion of its five-hue red to forest green scale) and is close to achieving modest progress.

If that sounds, well, all relative and imprecise, that’s because the rating reflects the nation’s own energy efficiency goals, which are mostly non-existent on a national scale and all over the map across 50 states. Rather than be able to create a definitive answer, say along the lines of an index score, the non-profit examined 15 indicators and rated this year’s data compared to last year’s.

Those indicators include legislative benchmarks like the existence of mandatory energy efficiency resources standards or updated building codes, symbols of intent like budgets for efficiency programs and use of public transit, and actual measurable outputs like greenhouse gas emissions and fuel economy of new cars and trucks. The cumulative score for all the indicators was then rolled into the final judgment—yellow.

Last July, using data sources that could be compared across international boundaries, the same group did create a numerical score for the U.S. energy efficiency. It was 47 out of 100, which landed the U.S. ninth out of the dozen largest economies. The United Kingdom came in first, followed by Germany and Italy (could we have been bugging our buddies on the Continent for energy saving tips?). Following the U.S., in order, were Brazil, Canada, and Russia.

The counsel of Dick Cheney still echoes: “Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy.”

Conservation isn’t just for chumps, though, and there are a number of areas where the U.S. can up its game, from greater use of public transit and more efficient transportation of freight to better combining the co-production of electricity and heat for industrial uses. But the key problem, in the council’s eyes, is that no one’s in charge of any of this stuff on a national scale. While the white paper doesn’t say this, now seems an unlikely time to see more power placed in the hands of the central government, especially in green pursuits, during a time of greater domestic energy production (why be ants in an age of grasshoppers?) and a burgeoning economic recovery. In the eternal struggle between the carrot and the stick, we’re enjoined from wielding any sticks and, after the stimulus, there’s no more budget for carrots.

Not that there are no efforts at improving energy efficiency from the top, although much of that comes down to fine rhetoric.

Let’s take the example of co-production of electricity and heat, the only one of the 15 indicators where the council, using EPA figures, saw the U.S. go backwards. So-called “combined heat and power,” or CHP, either uses heat generated by the production of electricity to warm buildings, or uses heat generated by industrial processes to produce electricity. The boffins at Oak Ridge National Laboratories have been arguing for years that greater use of this frugal—and venerable—technology could save energy, reduce carbon output, and make money. Their plan, admittedly for “high deployment,” calls for doubling the installed CHP use in the U.S., currently nine percent of the U.S. total generating capacity, to 20 percent by 2030.

Cumulatively through 2030, such policies could also generate $234 billion in new investments and create nearly 1 million new highly skilled, technical jobs throughout the United States. CO2 emissions could be reduced by more than 800 million metric tons per year, the equivalent of taking more than half of the current passenger vehicles in the US off the road. In this 20 percent scenario, over 60 percent of the projected  increase in CO2 emissions between now and 2030 could be avoided.

In short, sweet!

So how did we rate again in the council’s white paper? In 2011, 31 percent of the industrial sector’s electricity consumption was from CHP—down 1.5 percent from the year before.

In short, not so sweet!

In August President Obama issued an executive order encouraging investment to expand the use of CHP. Again, the benefits are manifest: “Accelerating these investments in our nation’s factories can improve the competitiveness of United States manufacturing, lower energy costs, free up future capital for businesses to invest, reduce air pollution, and create jobs.” But the order came with no money. While it’s good for regulators and innovators on the federal government’s payroll to know they should be smoothing the way for CHP—and they are—it will require local government buy-in and almost a business-by-business campaign to reach the 20 percent goal.

This summer, committees in both houses of Congress are considering the Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act, which would encourage more energy efficient buildings and manufacturing, with the charge led by the nation’s largest single energy user—Uncle Sam.

Meanwhile, just before he left for Africa, Obama released his Climate Action Plan, which contains a number of calls for greater efficiency:

• Up to $8 billion in loan guarantees to support advances in “advanced fossil energy” and efficiency projects.
• Expanding the Better Building Challenge to help commercial, industrial, and multi-family buildings become at least 20 percent more energy efficient by 2020.
• With industry, to develop higher fuel economy standards for heavy-duty vehicles by 2018.

Regardless of where one falls on climate change, these are laudable, and perhaps even vital, national goals. As the council—admittedly pro-efficiency—argues:

In countries the world over it has become largely accepted that improving energy efficiency is an essential tool for ensuring economic prosperity and increasing global competitiveness. Japan, Germany, and China are more committed in their national policies and investment in energy efficiency than the United States. As a result, these nations are poised to produce goods and services at a lower cost. More energy-efficient economies are able to reduce their energy waste and maximize their output, thereby reducing costs and streamlining systems. To stay ahead of the curve and maintain its status as a world leader, the United States must adopt and advance energy efficiency measures throughout all sectors of its economy.

After all, in the face of a real national challenge, who wants to be yellow?

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

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