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Energy efficiency can get us halfway to the carbon-reduction targets needed to curb the worst effects of climate change (and we'll save money too).
In an old folktale, a man travels the world in search of treasure, only to return home and find it had been in his hearth all along. Similarly, as we all hear daily news reports on the ever-worsening effects of climate change, we tend to look beyond our own communities for the solutions, from looking forward to new renewable fuel sources to waiting for exciting future technologies, like plug-in hybrid cars. But a huge solution—one that’s available right now and can cut our climate emissions in half, quickly and painlessly—has been in our own homes the entire time: energy efficiency.
We can create significant energy savings—at home, at work, and in our communities and beyond—using technologies available today. Simple things like light bulbs, surge protectors, and clotheslines, banded together with more complex machinery like Energy Star appliances, solar powered hot water heaters, and other cutting-edge solutions, when implemented together, hold the promise of massive energy savings—and massive climate crisis mitigation.
Our 12-step plan for curbing climate change asks us to make all US buildings 25 percent more energy efficient. However, earlier this year, climate scientists around the world, including those from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the University of Oregon, and the Carnegie Institute released reports stating that the world is warming faster than anyone had predicted, and we must act now to bring our emissions to zero by the end of the century.
The quickest, easiest, and most powerful way to move at the speed and scale necessary to counteract the worst effects of climate change is by vastly ramping up our energy efficiency efforts—at home, at work, and as a nation and world. It’s the closest thing we’ve got to a magic bullet that will solve the climate crisis, but all of us have to be willing to do our part, right now.
That’s why we’ve amended our 12-step climate change plan to say that US homes and buildings need to be 50 percent more energy-efficient than they are today. Fifty percent is possible, right now, using existing technologies. Fifty percent is, according to numerous experts, cost-effective, meaning we’ll actually save money taking these steps. And fifty percent will bring us benefits that go beyond curbing climate change and preserving our world for future generations—our homes will be more comfortable, our energy bills will be lower, our air will be cleaner, we’ll create green jobs, and we’ll pave the way for a green energy future, making it more cost-effective to install massive amounts of solar and other renewables.
A pioneer ahead of his time
Cutting our energy use in half sounds like a daunting task, but several scientists note that it’s simpler than we think. One scientist in particular has been touting the benefits of energy efficiency for decades.
Back in 1973, the oil producing countries that made up the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC, launched an oil embargo against the US in protest of US foreign policy regarding Israel. The OPEC countries also used their particular leverage on the oil market to send oil prices skyrocketing worldwide, and the US found itself in the middle of an energy crisis the likes of which no one had seen before. The price of gas nearly doubled, and the government started rationing gasoline. The New York Stock Exchange plummeted, and schools and offices closed intermittently during the winter to avoid using heating oil. Then-President Nixon called on all Americans to take extraordinary measures to conserve energy and oil at home and in their communities.
OPEC lifted the oil embargo in 1974, but the member countries had sent a powerful message showing just how vulnerable the West was due to its dependence on foreign oil. One person who didn’t forget that message was a quiet genius in Colorado named Amory Lovins.
Prior to 1973, Lovins had been writing reports and speaking out about the power of energy efficiency. In 1976, shortly after the oil crisis of ’73, Lovins published a paper called “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken,” which had this as its central theme: Instead of asking where we can get more oil, coal, and plutonium, we should be asking how we can use less oil and other energy sources.
Lovins called on individuals at home and innovators in industry to implement widespread energy efficiency measures, ranging from simple to complex. And, he said that society should move away from what he called “hard” energy technologies, in the form of giant, centralized coal-fired and nuclear power plants, and toward “soft,” or locally based, safe, and renewable technologies like solar, matched in size to our end-use needs.
His reasons for these recommendations were so ahead of his time, they were almost prophetic.
“The commitment to a long-term coal economy ... makes the doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration early in the next century virtually unavoidable, with the prospect then or soon thereafter of substantial and perhaps irreversible changes in global climate,” he wrote in 1976.
Plus, he said, mining coal and uranium comes with other significant environmental costs: “[Both will entail] inverting thousands of communities and millions of acres, often with little hope of effective restoration.”
But Lovins’ most powerful argument at the time against the coal and nuclear economy was that it is hopelessly inefficient. Soft technologies that were locally based and constructed to supply only as much energy as a community needed would use much less energy, save money, create local jobs, and curb the vast environmental damage he warned was inevitable. They’d also eliminate our economic vulnerability to sometimes hostile oil-producing countries.
Today, Lovins’ arguments are incontrovertible. But in the mid-seventies, many thought he was not only dead wrong, but they dismissed him as a “Socialist.” A good number of his most outspoken critics came, of course, from the coal and nuclear industries, like Dr. Ralph Lapp, a physicist and consultant to the nuclear industry in 1976, who remarked, “It’s clear that this is an energy radical speaking.”
But Lovins wouldn’t be deterred from his “radical” ideas. Clearly all-too-aware of the prevailing attitude toward energy issues at the time, Lovins wrote in “The Road Not Taken”: “The Chase Manhattan Bank in 1973 saw virtually no scope for conservation save by minor curtailments: the efficiency with which energy produced economic outputs was assumed to be optimal already. In 1976, some analysts still predict economic calamity if the United States does not continue to consume twice the combined energy total for Africa, the rest of North and South America, and Asia except Japan. But what have more careful studies taught us about the scope for doing better with the energy we have? Since we can’t keep the bathtub filled because the hot water keeps running out, do we really need a bigger water heater, or could we do better with a cheap, low-technology plug?”
Efficiency: Our Best Hope
The answer was and still remains an emphatic yes—we can do better. With a few judicious investments—in things like energy-efficient appliances and windows—all of us can cut our energy use by 50 percent in the next five years, and save money while we’re at it. The average homeowner can save up to 30 percent off his/her energy bill just by making the simplest energy efficiency improvements, says Paul Scheckel, an energy auditor and author of The Home Energy Diet (New Society Publishers, 2008). And once we start taking bigger efficiency steps like switching homes to solar hot water heaters and revamping industrial machinery, the US could save up to 75 percent of the energy we use, in ways that are still cost-effective, says Lovins today, who continues his work through the nonprofit he founded, the Rocky Mountain Institute. In other words, we can lower our energy use by three-fourths with techniques that cost less than the electricity itself.
Lovins’ theory was recently backed up by none other than McKinsey & Co., a global management consulting firm that advises the biggest corporations worldwide on how to improve their company performance. McKinsey’s 2008 report stated, “Additional annual investments in energy productivity of $170 billion through 2020 could cut global energy demand growth by at least half—the equivalent of 64 million barrels of oil a day or almost one and a half times today’s entire US energy consumption.”
The US could lead the way to cutting our worldwide energy demand, moving us toward our goal of avoiding the worst effects of global warming. Keep in mind that the Iraq War has cost the US almost $510 billion, according to the National Priorities Project, and the $170 billion needed to cut our global energy use in half would be shared among all industrialized countries—an eminently doable goal.
“Moreover,” notes the McKinsey report, “the opportunities to boost energy productivity use existing technologies that pay for themselves and therefore free up resources for investment or consumption elsewhere.” (Emphasis ours.)
The time to act is now.
We invite you to download this issue of the Quarterly and use it as a challenge to commit, today, to reducing the energy you use in your own home by 50 percent. Use our “Efficiency at Home” section on the next page to start taking action at home—action that will lower your household global warming footprint and your energy bill.
If we are to curb the climate crisis, every building needs to hit the 50-percent-or-better goal. Every new building that goes up must be built to a new zero-energy standard. Every household needs to pitch in and slice its emissions in half. And then, we need to install clean, green, carbon-free systems to take care of our newly trimmed-down energy needs.
We can cut our emissions in half as a country. It’s up to us to lead the way, starting this minute.
—Tracy Fernandez Rysavy