While You Weren’t Looking, Energy Efficiency Became One of Our Nation's Top Energy Resources

June 2, 2017 | 1:59 pm
Julie McNamara
Senior Energy Analyst

Here’s a fact I bet you didn’t know: in 2015, energy efficiency saved more electricity than was produced by every type of electricity resource in our country but for coal and natural gas. Hydro, renewables, even nuclear—energy efficiency saved more than each of them produced.

That is incredible. It also means that energy efficiency came through as the third-largest electricity resource in the United States that year.

When it comes to clean energy, we spend a lot of our time talking about the tremendous benefits and abilities of resources like wind and solar. But do you know the very cleanest energy resource we have? That would be the one that helps us never call upon an electron at all.

Over the past few decades, energy efficiency has slowly but steadily helped us make better use of the energy we consume for all types of activities, from heating and cooling to lighting and transportation. Everybody has benefited as a result, so it makes sense to keep pushing forward, right?

You’d think.

But at present, energy efficiency initiatives at the federal level are under fierce attack. That won’t stop our progress, though, because we are seeing states and cities all across the country working hard to keep driving the momentum and stacking up the savings in new and exciting ways. Here’s a look at some of the promising progress afoot.

The invisible resource that could

Energy efficiency efforts were developed in earnest following the price spikes of the 1973 oil crisis. Stakeholders throughout the residential, commercial, industrial, and transportation sectors all looked for ways to use less energy while still achieving the same output. In the aftermath, research and policymaking persisted, and energy efficiency has been chipping away at our energy use ever since. And as our peers at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) recently calculated, these efforts have resulted in significant gains:

Between 1980 and 2014, ACEEE estimates that energy efficiency efforts (blue) have steadily increased the amount of energy we save, such that by 2014, energy efficiency savings totaled the equivalent of nearly half of our actual energy use.

As ACEEE points out, while the nation’s gross domestic product grew by 149 percent between 1980 and 2014, energy use increased by just 26 percent. The figure above illustrates why. The green wedge represents the reductions in energy use arising from structural changes in our economy (e.g., transitioning from manufacturing to service). The blue wedge, however, is strictly a result of gains from energy efficiency.

If you look carefully, you can see that by 2014, the blue wedge now totals more than half of our actual energy use. What an extraordinary achievement!

And here’s where the stat from the top of the article is derived: if you back out the savings we’ve made from energy efficiency programs implemented since 1990, the resource now ends up comprising the third-largest share of our electricity generation. Here’s ACEEE’s analysis for 2015:

When you compare energy efficiency savings against electricity generation by resource, the scale of energy efficiency savings jump out, both at an absolute level (left) and a relative level (right) of 2015 electricity generation.

Stacking the savings

So how did we achieve these remarkable gains? And, perhaps more importantly, how do we make sure we keep on achieving them? Here, so much of it comes down to fostering supportive policies—plus continuing to fund the research driving the technological innovation that gives us the ability to keep leaping ahead.

There’s no getting around the fact that policies at the federal level have resulted in major gains, and set the stage for so many of the advancements from which we’ve benefited. Indeed, it’s been estimated that for every $1 dollar invested in energy efficiency, stakeholders receive $2 to $4 in return. Further, time and again energy efficiency has been shown to be one of the most cost-effective resources when it comes to driving down emissions in the power sector.

Still, somehow, the present administration is proposing to slash budgets for energy efficiency research, pause some standards designed to save consumers and businesses money, and zero out EPA’s widely appreciated labeling program ENERGY STAR.

But here’s the thing: although federal initiatives are under fire, our states and municipalities are still charging ahead. And because of that, we can keep on looking forward to many gains to come. For that, we should celebrate. Further, this local progress can be held up as proof that regardless of rhetoric at the top, all citizens want to save money (and, in turn, clean our air). Energy efficiency just makes sense.

So let’s take a look at some actual leaders.

In a recently released report, my colleagues ranked states according to their clean energy momentum. Three of the metrics considered energy efficiency: 1) targets for electricity savings according to state energy efficiency resource standards, 2) jobs in energy efficiency per thousand people, and 3) energy savings as a portion of retail electricity sales. Here are the top 10 states for each:

Different states rise to the top when it comes to energy efficiency metrics, including through energy efficiency resource standards (left), energy efficiency jobs (center), and utility savings (right), .

But energy efficiency improvements can also take root at the local level, and in some very meaningful ways. ACEEE recently released a report that ranked cities across the United States with these opportunities in mind.

The report takes a deep dive into each of the metrics, offering a fascinating—and instructive—guide that is well worth a read. Here’s a top-line look at how the 51 ranked cities performed. Wave hello to Boston at the head of the class!

ACEEE ranked 51 cities around the country according to a variety of energy efficiency policies. Note the allocation of possible points across policy areas–it’s an instructive reflection of key opportunities at the local level.

When less is more, energy efficiency is best of all

Though we can’t always see energy efficiency at work, we can all recognize and value the resulting reductions in electricity bills, lowering of expenses, and more comfortable environments. So to keep pushing forward even if we’re stalled at the top, let’s take full advantage of the many opportunities that exist for driving gains in energy efficiency at the state and local levels. And along the way, let’s celebrate our state and local leaders out front on these issues, and continue to encourage those still finding their way.

Posted in: Energy

Tags: Clean Energy Momentum

About the author

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Julie McNamara is a senior energy analyst with the Climate & Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Her research focuses on policies and measures that facilitate a rapid, sustained, and broadly beneficial transition of our nation’s energy system.