Raising Energy Productivity

Having closely followed and written about energy for a number of years, we at the Earth Policy Institute know that there is an enormous potential for raising energy productivity. This becomes clear in comparisons of energy use among countries. Some nations in Europe have essentially the same living standard as the United States yet use scarcely half as much energy per person. But even the countries that use energy most efficiently are not close to realizing the full potential for doing so. See Chapter 10 "Stabilizing Climate" in Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble, available for free downloadingWhen the Bush administration released a new energy plan in April 2001 that called for construction of 1,300 new power plants by 2020, Bill Prindle of the Washington-based Alliance to Save Energy responded by pointing out how the country could eliminate the need for those plants and save money in the process. He ticked off several steps that would reduce the demand for electricity: Improving efficiency standards for household appliances would eliminate the need for 127 power plants. More stringent residential air conditioner efficiency standards would eliminate 43 power plants. Raising commercial air conditioner standards would eliminate the need for 50 plants. Using tax credits and energy codes to improve the efficiency of new buildings would save another 170 plants. Similar steps to raise the energy efficiency of existing buildings would save 210 plants. These five measures from the longer list suggested by Prindle would not only eliminate the need for 600 power plants, they would also save money. Although these calculations were made in 2001, they are still valid simply because there has been so little progress in raising U.S. energy efficiency since then.

Of course, each country will have to fashion its own plan for raising energy productivity. Nevertheless, there are a number of common components. Some are quite simple but highly effective, such as using more energy-efficient household appliances, eliminating the use of incandescent light bulbs, shifting to gas-electric hybrid cars, and redesigning urban transport systems to raise efficiency and increase mobility.

Although there was an impressive round of efficiency gains in household appliances after the oil price jumps during the 1970s, the world generally lost interest as oil prices declined after 1980. Rising oil and natural gas prices are rekindling interest in this issue. Fortuitously, engineering advances since then have brought another wave of efficiency gains, such as those mentioned for Japan, that promise to substantially reduce electricity use. If national governments raise appliance efficiency standards to fully exploit the latest technologies, it would sharply cut carbon emissions worldwide.

One simple energy-saving step is to replace all remaining incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), which use only one third as much electricity and last 10 times as long. In the United States, where 20 percent of all electricity is used for lighting, if each household replaced the still widely used incandescents with compact fluorescents, electricity for lighting would be easily cut in half. The combination of greater longevity and lower electricity use greatly outweighs the higher costs of the CFLs, yielding a risk-free investment return of some 25—40 percent a year. Worldwide, replacing incandescent light bulbs with CFLs in, say, the next three years would facilitate the closing of hundreds of climate-disrupting coal-fired power plants.

A second obvious area for raising energy efficiency is automobiles. If over the next decade the United States, for example, were to shift from the current fleet of cars powered with gasoline engines to gas-electric hybrids with the fuel efficiency of the Toyota Prius, gasoline use could easily be cut in half. Sales of hybrid cars, introduced into the U.S. market in 1999, reached an estimated 88,000 in 2004. Higher gasoline prices and mounting climate change worries are driving sales upward. With U.S. auto manufacturers coming onto the market with several new models, hybrid vehicle sales are projected to exceed 1 million by 2008.

Another attractive way to raise energy efficiency is to redesign urban transport systems, moving from the existing system centered on single-occupant automobiles to a more diverse bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly system that would include well-developed light-rail subway systems complemented with buses. Such a system would increase mobility, reduce energy use and air pollution, and provide more opportunities for exercise, a win-win-win situation. Taking automobiles off the street would facilitate the conversion of parking lots into parks, creating more friendly cities.

For all of the details, check out Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble, which can be downloaded for free.