Energy Efficiency: A Bright Idea

— by Rebecca Stewart, Program Coordinator —

These days, it seems like all anyone talks about is jobs and an ever gloomier economic outlook. It has even become a meme to respond to a question or begin a sentence with an ever-so-ironic, “well, in this economy…” Congress is mired in partisan bickering and a clear solution for how to solve the myriad very real problems facing the nation remains hazy. However, there is one sound investment out there that has always been and remains to be a winning combination of economic stimulator, job creator, wallet-fattener, and all around good investment: energy efficiency.

Energy efficiency, while routinely invoked as an easy way to save a few bucks or make your home more comfortable (never mind that energy audits can find life-threatening carbon monoxide leaks or mitigate asthma triggers) also strengthens the economy as a whole by creating demand for small businesses and contractors to provide services. Additionally, retrofits provide immediate and visible savings to the home or business owner, who can then spend those dollars on other goods, thus reinvesting in the local economy. Additionally, every bit of energy we avoid using lessens the pressure on our dwindling non-renewable energy supplies and makes investment in potentially environmentally degrading fracking, foreign oil from hostile countries, or other unsavory options unnecessary. This avoided expenditure also means that harmful chemicals are not released into the atmosphere, hastening climate change. Energy efficiency can also provide a “bridge” between our old energy economy, dependent on coal, oil, and natural gas, and a new energy economy, using renewable energy sources. So why is the public not clamoring for more?

The fact is, the initial investment in building retrofits or high efficiency vehicles can seem dauntingly high and, as any homeowner knows, building improvement projects can be time consuming and frustrating. Plus, the types of building retrofit measures installed are often invisible and may seem not worth it, despite the proven savings. The Energy Information Administration estimates that 41% of total U.S. energy consumption comes from buildings, 22% of which comes from homes. This energy usage is comprised of over 70% of national electricity and 50% of natural gas consumption. This is a huge untapped market energy savings can total 25% (approximately $500 annually) for residential and 50% for commercial properties. One factor holding back large retrofit projects is the tight financial markets, which have made it harder for businesses to get financing and so business owners have shifted their priorities elsewhere.

President Obama has demonstrated his continuing support of broader energy efficiency efforts, requesting a 52% increase in energy efficiency for FY2013. While this is a step toward energy independence, much more remains to be done. Efforts to stimulate demand should include a wider array of financing options for home and business owners; tax rebates and credits for the purchase of larger goods, such as energy efficient appliances and high efficiency vehicles; and a clear message that, while an “all-of-the-above” strategy for energy is expedient in the short-term, renewable energy is clearly the sustainable option and energy efficiency provides an important stepping stone on the way to a clean energy future.