The enormous scale of all the energy that we never used

It’s not easy working in the energy efficiency world – that wonky sphere focused on tweaking homes and appliances to get us to use less energy, and so, contribute less to climate change.

It’s a place where you see constant successes – Obama’s administration has put in place dozens of new standards to make products more energy efficient – but can’t ever seem to get much credit for them. After all, who notices the energy that they never use? Who is acutely conscious of doing more with less?

Energy efficiency takes a huge number of forms, ranging from weatherizing a house to upping the fuel efficiency of vehicles. A new report by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a prominent nonprofit that both researches and promotes energy efficiency, makes the case that it has truly been transformative, and in a way that is quantifiable, over the past several decades.

Take, for instance, economic growth: Since 1980, the report finds, GDP in this country has grown 149 percent. And it has long been assumed that energy use, and economic productivity, increase in tandem. But the report finds that only went from using 78 to 98 quads (short for a quadrillion BTUs, or British thermal units) of energy annually between 1980 and 2014. The percentage increase – 26 percent – is vastly smaller.

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The report calculates that after adjusting for other factors, such as structural changes in the economy as it moved from manufacturing towards more dependence on services, we are basically seeing 58 quads of annual energy savings attributable to more efficiency – an enormous amount.

Relatedly, the research also asserts that since about the year 1995, we have seen what is sometimes called a “decoupling” between the growth of GDP and that of electricity usage in the country.

Such a decoupling occurred, the argument goes, not only because of the same structural changes mentioned above, but also due to less demand for energy amidst economic expansion.

Finally, the document calculates that energy efficiency, if considered an electricity “resource,” is the third largest in the country, after coal and natural gas – meaning that it is bigger than nuclear power. The justification for this calculation is that if energy had not been conserved, the U.S. would need dramatically more electricity generation capacity – hundreds of power plants.

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“In 2015, we estimate that US electricity savings from efficiency is about the same as the amount of electricity needed to power Canada and Mexico combined,” said Patrick Kiker, ACEEE’s spokesman.

And if you take the total electricity saved between 1990 and 2015 in the U.S., adds ACEEE’s Maggie Molina, who directs the group’s program on utilities, state and local policy, then it adds up to a third of all the globe’s electricity generation in a year.

So is energy efficiency really this powerful?

The Post asked several experts to comment critically on the report. And the general gist is that while there are some pitfalls in these types of analyses, and it is possible to overplay things, they agreed about the overall effectiveness of energy efficiency.

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One, Charles Goldman of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, cautioned that “in some cases, the report tends to use sources that are often based on ACEEE research – rather than other more conservative sources.”

Still, Goldman continued, “the policies that are enunciated – appliance and equipment efficiency standards, building energy codes, utility efficiency programs funded by utility customers, utility regulatory reform – are all solid and well-grounded and are cost-effective if done well. And for that part of the report, I would certainly agree that those policies have served US customers well if they are well-implemented and have the potential to continue producing cost-effective savings going forward to 2030.”

“The overall message of the report is not really controversial, and has been strongly supported by excellent research over the years,” added Jonathan Koomey, a research fellow at the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance at Stanford University who has published on the decoupling of GDP from electricity consumption in the U.S., also noting that the change began around the mid-1990s. “There is great potential for efficiency and adopting it has multiple benefits, but to capture these benefits requires changes in policies, institutional structures, and human behaviors.”

Koomey said it is very important, however, to separate energy efficiency gains from structural economic changes, which also contributed greatly to a decoupling of GDP and electricity consumption. He said the report had done this for its main findings related to GDP, but there were some figures that “do not appear to treat structural change explicitly.”

ACEEE’s Molina, though, said that different approaches to this type of analysis — one that is “top down,” which looks at the energy intensity of the economy and factors out structural change, and one that is “bottom up,” which sums together all the different gains from energy efficiency programs — yield similar results.

What is most important, though, is the role played by energy efficiency going forward. Assuming President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan makes its way through legal challenges and comes into effect, energy efficiency – using less – could be one key way that U.S. states manage to lower their emissions as required by the plan. (Others include shifting to renewables, or shifting from coal to gas or coal to nuclear.)

It’s not just the United States, either. In laying out a scenario to keep the world below 2 degrees of global warming, above pre-industrial levels, by 2050, the International Energy Agency focused on five necessary factors to get there. We’ll need vastly more renewable energy, more nuclear energy, and more carbon capture and storage. We’ll have to switch which fuels we use. But the fifth factor, once again, was doing much more with less.

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