Energy efficiency 1 means doing more with less—so we maintain (or exceed) performance while saving both energy and money. Energy efficiency can help meet the country’s growing demand for energy just as well as oil, gas, coal or uranium can. It is the fastest, cleanest and most economical energy resource we have.
Due to many niche applications for efficient technologies, energy efficiency is a complicated topic without a one-size-fits-all solution; however, various technologies and policies can support the efficient use of energy throughout our daily lives and the economy as a whole.
The wide range of technological opportunities include lighting, building design and performance, vehicle miles per gallon, and industrial processes. In terms of energy policy, efficiency is often referred to as the low-hanging fruit. In addition, opportunities already exist that are cash flow positive to meet emissions reduction targets. If applied widely, energy efficiency has the potential to displace the need for conventional energy including existing or new power plants.
Experts predict a 5 to 15 percent reduction in electricity demand by 2020 through energy efficiency. Coupled with demand response to manage electricity use, an additional reduction of 7.5 to 15 percent in peak demand could be achieved. Efficiency also complements goals set out in various “roadmap” reports that detail how to reduce emissions or reach renewable energy targets by certain dates (most dates fall between 2030 and 2050). As early as 1989, the concept of “negawatts”, a measure of energy savings, was being used to describe a new path of energy policy through efficiency. The legacy of the negawatt concept is still uncertain, but may be most fully realized in the implementation of smart meter infrastructure.
A major opportunity for efficiency is in the design of new buildings. Over the last decade, the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification system, the Building Performance Institute and Energy Star for new homes, have all helped to set the bar for incorporating efficiency in building design. Other groups are attempting to raise the bar higher towards buildings with zero net emissions.
Fortunately, technology has kept pace with meeting these certification requirements and goals. For example, a 2011 Innovation Awards winner in the environment category is heat-reflecting windows—the treated glass lets in light without putting a strain on air conditioning.
Consumers now have a variety of energy efficient products and appliances to choose from. The Energy Star labeling program, created by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE 2 ), helps consumers find products that can save energy and money. Products earn the label by meeting EPA’s product specifications including: saving significant energy without hampering performance; saving money through energy savings on a more efficient (though often more expensive) model; and being subjected to tests that measure and verify energy consumption and performance.
In addition to the Energy Star program, the EPA and the DOE have programs in place for verification of vehicle performance in miles per gallon, available at www.fueleconomy.gov. Manufacturers of vehicles conduct tests to establish vehicle efficiency under a variety of conditions. The vehicle’s manufacturer reports the results of the tests to the EPA, which audits 10-15 percent of the vehicles submitted. The EPA then creates a label for the vehicle that lets consumers know the vehicle’s efficiency.
The commercial sector has many opportunities for using energy more efficiently. Nineteen percent of the energy consumed in the United States is by the commercial sector, with half of that energy devoted to heating and lighting. Improving operations and maintenance of buildings provides prospects for efficiency and financial savings. For example, after energy efficiency improvements, the University of Michigan decreased their energy demand by 26 percent in 2010 compared to 2009, and in the process saved $3.6 million.
As energy efficiency improves there is the potential for the rebound effect to occur. First described by economist William Stanley Jevons in the 19th century, the rebound effect is the response to efficiencies of use of a resource that lead to greater use of that resource. For instance, if you have a new car that gets better gas mileage than your previous car, you may be tempted to drive the car more, however, if you drive your new, efficient car a little more, your overall gas use may still be below what your previous car used, resulting in a net savings. Due to the complexity of behavioral and economic factors, the extent of the rebound effect with energy efficiency is unclear.
Energy efficiency also provides an opportunity to save water. The energy-water nexus demonstrates that it takes a significant amount of water to create energy and it takes a significant amount of energy to treat and move water. Since conventional power generation is highly dependent on water for cooling purposes, using energy more efficiently therefore reduces impacts on water resources.
With endless possibilities for projects, the future of energy efficiency looks promising. Technological breakthroughs have increased efficiency and performance for everything from household items to industrial processes. Increasing energy costs have increased demand for energy efficient products. Often the energy efficiency improvements have been coupled with water efficiency improvements, as demonstrated in high efficiency clothes washers. Improvements in LED lighting have greatly increased the use, aesthetics and application of that technology. Overall, expect more applications of energy efficiency as program, policy and technological barriers are broken down.