Ramping Up Energy Efficiency Key to Address Climate Change

A recently completed study provides powerful new evidence of the vast potential of energy efficiency to reduce climate-changing pollution, cut utility bills, drive innovation, and spur economic growth.  

The report by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) shows how much the country has already benefited from energy-saving programs—for example, saving households, on average, $840, and reducing carbon pollution by 490 million tons in 2015. 

It also makes a compelling case for ramping up efficiency programs to protect our children and future generations from dangerous climate change.

Efficiency, now the nation’s third largest electricity resource, could become the largest by 2030 if we take advantage of numerous opportunities available to reduce energy waste, the report notes.

We could save as much as 1,000 terawatt-hours of electricity by 2030. With what we’ve done through efficiency since 1990 and what more we could do between now and 2030, efficiency has the potential to keep 1 billion tons of carbon pollution out of the air and avoid the need for 800 power plants.

 
Estimated savings from maintaining and increasing energy efficiency policies through 2030.

Source: American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

A raft of studies and years of experience have taught us that energy efficiency is the cheapest and fastest way to cut harmful pollution. Programs such as insulating homes, strong building codes, and efficiency standards for appliances offer the added benefit of saving customers money, spurring investment in new technologies, creating jobs and helping U.S. businesses be competitive internationally.

NRDC, which has worked with ACEEE to promote efficiency, has pointed out that America’s economy has tripled in output in the last 40 years while our energy use only increased by one-third, largely due to improved efficiency

The ACEEE report, The Greatest Energy Story You Haven’t Heard: How Investing in Energy Efficiency Changed the US Power Sector and Gave Us a Tool to Tackle Climate Change, highlights the importance of ramping up efficiency to meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan. The plan sets the first federal limits on carbon pollution from power plants—the single largest source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

ACEEE found that many states can meet at least 25 percent of their pollution-reduction targets through efficiency programs; some states can even achieve 100 percent.

The report also is important as the U.S. Energy Department’s successful efficiency standards-setting program has faced assaults from members of Congress, even though standards have long enjoyed bipartisan support and have saved consumers $63 billion in 2015 alone and kept 2.6 billion tons of carbon pollution out of the atmosphere.

Some have called it our “first fuel”, and the ACEEE rightly calls efficiency a "quiet" and "unqualified’’ success story and includes impressive figures showing the crucial role it has played in meeting the nation’s energy needs.

The report, which examined the combined savings from efficiency standards, utility-run energy-saving programs and energy building codes since 1990, found that efficiency has:

  • Become the nation’s third-largest electricity resource—after coal and natural gas but ahead of nuclear—producing savings in 2015, equivalent to the electricity needed to power Canada and Mexico combined.
  • Saved U.S. consumers $90 billion annually or a total of nearly $790 billion since 1990.
  • Reduced carbon pollution by 490 million tons in 2015.
  • Prevented the need to build an additional 313 large power plants.

The power of efficiency also is evidenced by the fact that electricity consumption has flattened in recent years even as the economy has grown.

The report also notes that efficiency would ease the plight of low-income households who spend a disproportionate amount of their incomes for energy, an energy burden highlighted by a recent study by the Energy Efficiency for All project (a coalition which includes NRDC) and ACEEE.

As impressive as the health, economic and environmental benefits have been so far, the potential remains for efficiency to become the largest electricity resource by 2030, increasing from 18 percent of total generation in 2014 to 33 percent, the report notes.

If you consider what we’ve done to promote energy efficiency since 1990 and what more we could do if we took advantage of the significant opportunities to further cut energy waste, we could, by 2030, save an amount of electricity equivalent to that produced by 800 power plants.

 
Number of power plant equivalents avoided by energy efficiency since 1990 and potential through 2030.

Source: American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

It’s clear from the report: There are still many untapped opportunities to use energy efficiency to save money, cut harmful pollution and meet our climate goals.

About the Authors

Sheryl Carter

Codirector, Energy program

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