The Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan, whose goal is to achieve nationwide carbon dioxide emission reductions totaling 32 percent by 2030 relative to a 2005 baseline, has generated plenty of controversy. Many states, particularly those whose economy is dependent on coal or fossil fuels, have sued to block implementation of the rule. But however that plays out, the reality is that the pressure to reduce CO2 emissions is not going to go away.
States that do find themselves needing to meet the Clean Power Plan's ambitious goals -- the plan leaves it up to each state to create its own plan to reach its individual reduction target -- have a variety of methods they can use, including reducing the carbon intensity of electricity generation by improving the efficiency of existing coal-fired plants; increasing reliance on lower-emitting energy sources; and developing and using zero-emitting renewable sources such as wind and solar. But there is a common-sense approach to these issues that states can leverage effectively: rely on energy efficiency. After all, the greenest kilowatt-hour is the one that is never used and, indeed, never generated.
Consider that the EPA has estimated that Americans spend more than $10 billion annually on wasted energy. Devices such as cable-TV set-top boxes, computer equipment and video games that are left on constantly consume energy even when they are not in use. And that's just the beginning of the conversation.
Across the country, leaders in energy efficiency are at work in utilities, in government and in the private sector designing, implementing and evaluating programs that make it easier for consumers to be more energy efficient. These programs largely aim to spur behavior change through the use of managing power at off- peak times, leveraging the benefits of smart meters, and providing incentives for home and business owners to implement energy-efficient equipment and practices.
We are not talking about piling on more blankets on cold days. For example, technology has made it easy to control building heating and cooling remotely through a mobile device, monitor electricity usage online and program devices that use energy to turn on and off at predetermined times.
What can states do to encourage energy efficiency? In a recent article for the Association of Energy Services Professionals, Frank Stern, Rob Neumann and David Purcell of the consulting firm Navigant point out important steps that states should be taking: establish energy-savings targets; assess state performance incentives and cost-recovery mechanisms that move energy efficiency toward being equal to other supply-side resources; and integrate energy efficiency into the resource planning process as an option equal to generation in regulated markets.
By taking these steps, states can raise the visibility and the value of energy efficiency -- and begin to reap the benefits.
In fact, it's already happening. When adjusted for economic growth and inflation, the United States has cut its energy needs by more than 50 percent since 1973, according to a February 2013 report from the Bipartisan Policy Center's Strategic Energy Policy Initiative, and the trend shows no signs of slowing. And we can keep doing it because energy-efficiency technology is improving all the time.
There are other benefits: The energy-efficiency industry employs a lot of people. An analysis of the Clean Power Plan conducted by Industrial Economics and the University of Maryland estimates a net gain of 74,000 jobs in 2020 alone and projects that these annual employment gains will increase to between 196,000 and 273,000 jobs between 2025 and 2040.
When states begin their compliance strategies for the Clean Power Plan, they should consider energy efficiency first and foremost. Energy efficiency should not be thought of as former president Jimmy Carter wearing a sweater in front of a White House fireplace. It is a viable, credible industry that produces verifiable, quantifiable results.
When seen as a growing industry sector, energy efficiency becomes an economic engine. It is cost-effective by its very definition: It eliminates waste, creates jobs and protects the planet. Where's the downside in that?