Don’t Undervalue Efficiency

As renewable energy has become cheaper, energy efficiency remains at least as important as it would have been in a bleaker future of expensive renewables. When costs are tabulated in an even-handed way, efficiency is still the cheapest energy resource.

It has always been more challenging to generate the same level of enthusiasm for energy efficiency as it has for renewables. It can be hard to make something invisible look as shiny and appealing as new technologies for solar or wind. But the facts are there: efficiency shines just as (if not more) brightly as a beacon of hope to the clean energy market, and the planet.

That’s the point I made in an article recently published in The Electricity Journal, a far-reaching publication aimed at provoking thought about electricity from global leaders across industry, policy, government, and academia. I argued that energy efficiency is and remains the quickest, cheapest, and easiest way to reduce our consumption of electricity—and the climate-warming pollution associated with generating it.

Using NRDC’s 2017 report, “America’s Clean Energy Frontier: The pathway to a safer climate future,” I assert that, yes, the decreasing cost of renewable energy plays a pivotal role in limiting climate change to warming the planet at most 2 degrees above preindustrial temperatures. But maximizing energy efficiency will be at least as critical to decarbonizing to this level and integrating the large amounts of renewables onto the system that will be needed in the most affordable manner. The study also reveals efficiency as an even larger contributor than renewables to that goal.

The bottom line is simple: while renewables are now cheaper than dirty generation, and more popular, they are not a sufficient tool to successfully combat climate change alone – Energy efficiency and renewable generation  are both critical components. The NRDC data showed that the fastest recognizedly feasible increase of renewable integration would still not limit climate change to 1.5 degrees over preindustrial temperatures, the more ambitious goal adopted in the Paris Climate agreements. This is in part because the more renewables are added to the energy grid, the harder it gets to keep their costs low—but energy efficiency can include control strategies that match energy demands at a given time to the availability of renewables, and lowers the amount of renewables that must be built to replace other dirtier generation, which helps to keep their cost down.

Efficiency, in addition, is cheaper than renewables when directly compared. I have observed a long history of over-conservative price and performance assumptions for efficiency that do not measure its true cost-effectiveness. It’s also the technology most quickly upgraded to meet rigorous environmental standards or achieve goals like the Paris agreement. Integrating efficiency into building designs, such as through insulation, window placement, and efficient heating and cooling systems—as well as into automobiles and transportation infrastructure, is one way to save money and limit pollution.

Re-conceptualizing the electric grid in terms of efficiency is another: that means, instead of assuming that we need constant electricity in uniform amounts all day, every day, we can instead implement utility interventions that allow grid operators to change demand as a function of time.

This can be done without compromising consumer value: for example, it could look like a dishwasher that washes dishes in the middle of the night (at a low-demand time) instead of the early evening, when the dishes were going to be taken out in the morning either way. Or, it could be a charger for an electric car that stops charging when the availability of renewable energy is low and resumes charging when renewables are abundant, rather than charging unnecessarily throughout the night. Integrating these efficiency measures into building designs and grid operations, in tandem with using renewables, can maximize benefits.

In today’s world, where renewable energy sources like solar and wind power are getting cheaper and more in demand, energy efficiency is still necessary, beneficial, and indeed a key component of allowing renewable energy to approach the goal of supplying 100% of our energy needs.

You can read more about the benefits of efficiency and ways to start using it to its full potential in my Electricity Journal article, “Renewables may be plunging in price, but efficiency remains the cornerstone of the clean energy economy.”