Energy & Environment

Southern Inefficiency

With its growing population, the South must determine how to reduce energy consumption.
by | June 2010

The South may be known for its relaxed, slower way of life, but the region churns through energy resources as fast as or faster than anywhere else. As the area's population continues to surge over the next 20 years, however, energy efficiency is sure to become a bigger issue.

What's behind the South's lax attitude toward efficiency? Well for one thing, in recent years Southern states haven't been faced with the kinds of efficiency demands other regions have experienced. While other parts of the country have seen prolonged droughts, rolling blackouts and skyrocketing gas prices, the South has--for the most part--lived a charmed life.

Take the Southeast's recent three-year drought. True, parts of the region, mostly in Georgia, suffered severe water shortages, leading to restrictions on outdoor water use. But at the behest of Georgia's governor, the residents prayed for rain and it apparently worked: By 2009, the drought was over and the water restrictions were lifted. And when large portions of the country saw the price of gas top $4 per gallon in 2008, most of the South never saw per-gallon prices exceed $3.80. If anything, the area's historically cheap electricity rates have only served to subdue any enthusiasm for energy conservation.

A day of reckoning may be near, however. The South is the largest and fastest-growing region in the U.S., with 36 percent of the nation's population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The area already accounts for 44 percent of the nation's total energy consumption. If Southern states continue at current rates, their energy use will climb another 16 percent over the next two decades. Adding more power plants is one option, but they come with hefty price tags and even more environmental concerns. What's the South to do?

According to a recent study by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Duke University, the region can introduce aggressive efficiency measures to three sectors: residences, commercial buildings and industry. By doing so, the South could offset the expected growth in energy demand over the next 20 years; it also could reduce the need for new power plants, create jobs and reduce utility bills. The report, Energy Efficiency in the South, blames the region's "energy-intensive lifestyle" on a range of factors including its low electricity rates; the need for large amounts of heating in the winter and cooling in the summer; the lowest penetration of energy-efficient products in the nation; and per-capita spending on energy-efficiency programs that is lower than the national average.

"If the South could achieve the substantial energy-efficiency improvements that have already been proven effective in other regions and other nations," the authors conclude, "carbon emissions across the South would decline, air quality would improve and plans for building new power plants to meet growing electricity demand could be downsized and postponed, while saving ratepayers money."

Based on the protracted battles over energy resources in the West, Midwest and Northeast, the South may want to act now, before looming energy pressures become a full-blown crisis. It's an opportune time for the region to look at efficiency measures such as retrofits for homes, offices and power plants, as well as ongoing restrictions to curb water use. And a little prayer might not be a bad idea either.

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