An Earth Day Challenge for Energy Efficiency

A big prize awaits the community that can show the way toward better use of resources. It's a competition that's critical to our energy future.

If you have noticed your household energy costs increase in recent months, you're not alone. From record-setting cold in Dubuque, Iowa, to unseasonable warmth in Salt Lake City, the nation continues to see weather extremes, putting unexpected pressure on energy bills and often forcing homeowners to choose between paying for food and paying for utilities.

According to the most recent analysis, U.S. residential power generation between December 2013 and February 2014 was approximately 5 percent higher than the same period last year. But while the United States is now producing more of the energy we need here at home, we have yet to make enough progress on an equally important element of energy independence: efficiency. More than half of the energy that flows through our economy is ultimately wasted due to inefficiencies, according to a recent analysis by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

So, rather than focusing solely on the increasing costs of energy, as mayors we are concentrating our efforts on the more efficient use of energy resources. A more energy-independent future is possible, and we believe the solution rests not in Washington but in our own communities.

A recent International Energy Agency (IEA) report found that from 2005 to 2010, efficiency measures saved enough energy to equal $420 billion worth of oil in 11 industrialized nations, including the United States. In these 11 countries, the energy savings from efficiency measures exceeded the output from any single fuel source. The IEA now says that efficiency has gone from being the "hidden fuel" to "the world's first fuel."

We agree. Energy efficiency must become standard practice. That's why we stand together in support of a new national effort designed to help American communities rethink what it means to be energy efficient.

The Georgetown University Energy Prize is challenging small- to medium-size communities across the country to implement creative strategies to increase efficiency. Local governments, residents and utilities will have to work together to reduce energy consumption, but the payout is a big one: A $5 million check will go to the community that sets the standard for the kind of energy-saving habits that demonstrate sustained reductions in energy use over a two-year period.

By sparking the creativity of communities to help reduce our country's energy consumption, this prize has the potential to drive America toward sweeping, long-lasting improvements. It offers a clear path to help rewrite our energy future.

In Salt Lake City and Dubuque, we're proud of the progress we've made thus far. Salt Lake City recently received the 2013 Mayors' Climate Protection Award, presented by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and Wal-Mart, for the city's leadership in instituting innovative practices that increase energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Dubuque residents are engaging in pilot studies through the city's Smarter Sustainable Dubuque initiative that provide access to individualized data allowing them to save money and resources. That effort recently was named one of the top 25 innovations in government by the Harvard Kennedy School's Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation.

Not long ago, calls for U.S. energy independence seemed as futile as calls for changes in the weather. Yet we've made substantial progress. Now, it's time to unleash the ingenuity of our citizens to make progress on this equally important energy issue.

So far at least 49 communities, including Dubuque and Salt Lake City, have signaled that they will compete for the Georgetown prize. Across the country, nearly 9,000 communities are eligible. We challenge them to join us at the starting line.

VOICES is curated by the Governing Institute, which seeks out practitioners and observers whose perspective and insight add to the public conversation about state and local government. For more information or to submit an article to be considered for publication, please contact editor John Martin.