New Book Says Potential for Efficiency Is Much Larger than Previously Thought

In yesterday’s New York Times, NRDC’s David Goldstein said that America could reduce our projected energy use by more than 80 percent in the next 40 years.

That may sound like a bold claim, but in his new book, Invisible Energy: Strategies to Rescue the Economy and Save the Planet, David explains exactly why these enormous gains in energy efficiency are possible.

David is a physicist who won a MacArthur Genius Award in 2002 for his work demonstrating that refrigerators, air conditioners, and other appliances could be designed to use less energy and still reduce consumer costs and in some cases even cut manufacturers’ production costs.

With his latest book, David has undertaken the task of assessing how much more efficient America can become.

Conventional estimates—including from the National Academy of Sciences and McKinsey & Company—say we could cut our energy use by about 20 percent by 2020. The authors of these studies, however, concede that their estimates are too low.

Because as David points out, virtually all these studies are based on a model that assumes technology is frozen—that in 2020 or 2030, we will still be using the technologies developed in 2010.

Yet who would imagine that the TVs, cameras, and laptops we buy in 2030 will be the same as the ones we have today? We may not know what they’ll look like, but we know these products will be faster, cheaper, and more effective. A look at the history of flat-screen TVs illustrates just how rapidly these changes occur.

In his new book, David takes what we know about innovation curves in other technologies and applies it to the realm of efficiency. He concludes that we could reduce our energy use by 30 percent in 2020 and by 88 percent in 2050.

Considering that every kilowatt of energy we save is a kilowatt we don’t have to produce at a coal-fired, natural gas, or nuclear power plant, David’s estimates confirm that efficiency is our most potent weapon in the fight to curb climate change.

They also reveal how efficiency saves us money and generates jobs. David draws from his three decades of experience shaping efficiency measures in California to point out that without those measures, the average Californian’s utility bill would cost at least twice as much as it does today. These same measures have enabled California households to redirect their expenditures toward other goods and services, creating about 1.5 million full-time jobs with a total payroll of $45 billion.

Moreover, David shows in Invisible Energy how the policies we need to establish vibrant markets in efficiency are also the policies that will cure the economic imbalances that caused the Great Recession.

David calls his assessment “an entirely reasonable scenario.” He isn’t looking at pie-in-the-sky scenarios. Instead, he factors in technologies that manufacturers plan to introduce but haven’t announced yet, technologies they could introduce in the next year or two if they had the financial incentives, and finally, technologies they could develop if they were systematically encouraged by market-enhancing policies and incentives that promote efficiency.

Over the 30 years he has worked at NRDC, David has been a persuasive advocate for efficiency, but he is first and foremost a scientist—a scholar grounded in research.

What I find so inspiring about David’s book is that his research has illuminated a very hopeful proposition: America can become vastly more efficient, and we can do it thanks to our track record of innovation.