We can save more energy than Canada uses in a year with better appliances and insulation. So what's the holdup?
We waste a massive amount of energy. As a nation, we waste $130 billion worth of it every year. Our lamps put out more heat than light; our windows and walls leak; our computers, Xboxes, flat-screens, and microwaves steadily sip juice even when they're turned off. And that's just at home. The office and the factory aren't any better.Here's why this is a good thing.It means that there is staggering potential for energy savings in yet untapped efficiency measures. We can make enormous cuts to our energy use-and, therefore, carbon emissions-without compromising our quality of life or threatening the economy at all. Far from it, actually. These measures would put more money in the pockets of people and businesses alike, producing jobs all the while.A McKinsey report issued last week broke down just how great this potential is. By 2020, the report, "Unlocking Energy Efficiency in the U.S. Economy", explained, the United States could cut energy use for heating and generating power by 23 percent from projected demand. Twenty-three percent. That amount-roughly 9.1 quadrillion BTUs for any fellow energy dorks out there-is more than Canada's total current consumption, and would more than offset projected growth in U.S. energy use from current levels.Of course, it costs money to save money. The report figures a $520 billion investment over the coming decade in energy saving measures like sealing leaky buildings, replacing inefficient appliances, and capturing heat from industrial production. That investment, though, would yield about $1.2 trillion in savings on energy bills. Spend $520 billion to save more than twice that? Sounds like a bargain. And then there are the reductions in climate pollution, which are figured to be in the neighborhood of 1.1 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions-the "equivalent of taking the entire fleet of U.S. vehicles off the road." As Joe Romm notes, "the entire 2020 target in the Waxman-Markey climate bill could be met with energy efficiency at a net savings to U.S. consumers and businesses of $700 billion."But that's not all that's possible. If anything, the report is conservative in its estimates. It didn't even touch upon the transportation sector, which itself is ripe with potential for energy savings. Looking specifically at the residential, industrial, and commercial sectors (accounting for 35 percent, 40 percent, and 25 percent of the potential savings, respectively), it factored only efficiency programs with long-term savings that would, ultimately, outweigh the initial costs.So what's the holdup? Well, there are substantial barriers to implementing efficiency, which the McKinsey report breaks down thoroughly. Upfront costs are, predictably, a major roadblock. The yearly $52 billion investment is about 4 to 5 times more than what the nation currently spends on efficiency measures. (And the $10 to 15 billion set aside in the stimulus bill doesn't go very far towards reaching the goal.) The other hurdles are more complex. From "incentives split between parties" to "lack of awareness/information" to "product availability," our current energy system-politically, industrially, commercially, and culturally-simply isn't geared towards efficiency (as this rather bland chart from McKinsey illustrates.) Why would a landlord replace an old refrigerator if the tenant is paying the bills? Do homeowners even know they could reduce heating bills by 30 percent with better caulking, insulation, and weatherstripping? How to convince more states to adopt a California-style "decoupling" plan wherein utilities' profits aren't tethered to actual volume of energy sold? It'll take a massive (again, 10-year, $520 billion) effort, coordinated across a bunch of federal, state, and local agencies, as well as utilities and private manufacturers, to cut the waste out of our energy infrastructure. We'll need various programs focusing on creating financial incentives for implementing efficiency improvements, to tightening building codes and increasing efficiency requirements in electronics and appliances, to unprecedented public outreach and education.Between the stimulus bill and provisions in Waxman-Markey (Waxman actually slid decoupling into bill), we're off to an alright start. But it'll take steady, deliberate coordination for quite a few years to streamline our energy systems. Efficiency is the lowest hanging fruit in the threefer push to combat climate change, cut costs, and establish energy independence. The cheapest, cleanest, and safest energy is the energy that we never use.