The Energy-Efficiency Revolution

The Energy-Efficiency Revolution
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The six in a weekly series of articles RCP is publishing through Election Day to explore policymakers’ decisions regarding this crucial sector of the economy.

“Tonight, I want to have an unpleasant talk with you about a problem unprecedented in our history: With the exception of preventing war, this is the greatest challenge our country will face during our lifetimes.”

So spoke President Carter in a televised speech to the nation on April 18, 1977, just three months after he took office. He was talking about energy.

“The energy crisis has not yet overwhelmed us,” Carter added, “but it will if we do not act quickly.”

Today, if Jimmy Carter’s energy policies are recalled at all, they are remembered unkindly: a nationally imposed 55 mile-per-hour speed limit that Americans chafed at, or perhaps the president himself wearing that unstylish sweater while telling us to turn the thermostats down in the house—and way down at night.

But this was neither a passing fancy for Carter, nor for the country. When President Obama declared October National Energy Action Month, it was hardly a news story. Conserving energy—mostly by improving energy efficiency—has become built into this country’s political calculus. Academic studies show that what politicians often say in this regard is literally true: conserving energy is good for the environment and good for economic productivity.

A 2015 report by the non-profit, non-partisan American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy charted energy use from 1980 through 2014. In that 25-year-span, the nation’s GDP grew nearly 150 percent, but it only took a 26 percent increase in energy use to accomplish it. The term used to describe this value-added result is “energy intensity” and it decreased by 50 percent since Jimmy Carter was in the White House. This savings was achieved in a variety of ways. Here are a few examples:

  • Modern clothes washing machines are 70 percent more efficient than before.
  • Energy use in new homes has declined 20 percent per square foot.
  • Industrial energy savings per unit value of product is twice that high—nearly 40 percent.
  • Fuel economy in passenger vehicles has improved by more than 25 percent.
  • Energy losses in the nation’s electric transmission and distribution system have been reduced by more than 25 percent.

A more recent ACEEE report, issued in August, termed improvements in efficiency “the great untold success story” in America’s energy sector.

“As the 1973 oil crisis put pressure on energy security and as prices spiked, consumers looked for ways to conserve energy and reduce environmental impacts,” the authors wrote. “In response, a diverse group of scientists, analysts, and policymakers began to develop strategies to reduce energy waste and use less energy to deliver the same or better services to consumers and businesses.”

What they produced was an array of energy-efficient technologies, policies, and innovations that consumers take for granted—“an unqualified success story, both economically and environmentally, although one often unseen by the public.”

Futurists believe, however, that the science of conservation may be on the verge of taking leaps that vastly outpace the incremental efficiencies of the past generation.

Here are some of the fascinating and promising ideas being developed.

Green Buildings: According to a U.N. estimate, buildings account for 40 percent of the worldwide use of energy. The Department of Energy maintains that the figure is similar in the United States. This is about to change.

“I don't think sustainability is a design aesthetic, any more than having electricity in your building, or telephones, or anything else,” Robert A.M. Stern, then-dean of the Yale School of Architecture, told Environment Yale, a school-based publication. “It's an ethic, a basic consideration that we have to have as architects designing buildings.”

Smart Glass: Like the hatless head of a bald man, windows are where a disproportionate amount of heat (in the winter) and cool air (in the summer) escapes from homes, office buildings, and even motor vehicles. Until now, this leakage has been inevitable—and a constant energy drain.

So-called “smart windows” rely on a thin ceramic coating that automatically changes the tint on glass depending on outside lighting conditions and temperature. This technology depends on electrical impulses to work, but it is an extremely efficient one: The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that 100 windows of smart glass require less power than a 75-watt light bulb.

We’re talking about real savings here: Anderson Windows figures that smart glass is 70 percent more efficient in summer and 45 more efficient in winter than the dual-pane glass that is currently standard-issue.

Driverless Cars: Google and Apple are both dabbling in developing driverless vehicles. Tesla already has cars on the road with the technology, though it is not yet perfected. No one doubts that such systems, once the safety kinks are worked out, will improve traffic flow—and, therefore, gasoline efficiency. Automated driving could expand the business of ride-sharing services, “right-size” the vehicles needed for a specific trip, speed up the deployment of electric cars and accelerate other fuel-savings habits and technologies.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the University of Maryland have put a figure on the estimated fuel savings: 15 percent. Recent research by Goldman Sachs says it could be twice that high.

One potential problem: If driving becomes more efficient, safer, and more enjoyable, will that make it more appealing in the future—and drive up the nation’s mile-per-person ratios?  Perhaps so, but then the competition—namely users of mass transit and bicycles—will have to step up their games and demand more R&D and capital improvements for subways, trains, light rail and bike paths.

Cool Roofs: Seven years ago, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg committed his city to saving energy by painting the city’s rooftops with sun-reflecting white coating. This was an easy fix—it should been done long ago—and Gotham has far exceeded the original goal of 1 million square feet. Today, some 6 million square feet of roof space has been treated.

Newer technologies and newer approaches are now being tried, including garden rooftops. Chicago’s most famous urban garden actually sits atop the 11-story City Hall and consists of some 20,000 plants. It has saved the Windy City an estimated $5,000 a year in energy costs—all from one building.

Eventually, such gardens will be seen as a luxury, however: The space will be coveted as an energy generator. A report by the National Renewable Energy Lab estimated that if all the suitable rooftop space in the country were covered in solar panels, it would produce 40 percent of the electricity Americans use annually.

That’s certainly pie in the sky, but it’s as if the hat you put on that bald man’s heat would keep in coolness in the summer and generate warmth in the winter.

This wasn’t quite what Jimmy Carter talked about when he donned that Ward Cleaver sweater way back when—or maybe it was just what the president had in mind.

Carter first spoke to the nation about conserving energy only 13 days after being elected. It was then, on February 2, 1977, that he wore that sweater as a fire burned in the fireplace of the White House library.

The winter of 1976-1977 was a cold one. The president foresaw warmer days ahead when it came to America’s energy policy, but only if we’d change our ways.

“Our program will emphasize conservation,” he said that evening. “The amount of energy being wasted which could be saved is greater than the total energy that we are importing from foreign countries.

“All of us,” he added, “must learn to waste less energy.”

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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