Friday, January 13, 2012

The Big Bang of Energy Efficiency

I interviewed many financial planners in a newspaper career that spanned three decades, and they all said the same thing: Cutting spending is easier than finding new sources of revenue.

Property owners know this. Power bills are among their biggest expenditures, but also are relatively easy to control. And homeowners want efficient energy and lower bills, according to this survey. So, why isn't more effort put forth in that arena? Presidential candidates are all atwitter about the economy, but I haven't heard one mention the need for energy efficiency. Isn't saving money a bipartisan goal?

This report (log-in required, but here also is a link to a press release) from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy suggests that energy consumption could be slashed up to 60 percent by 2050, saving an average of $400 billion nationwide - the equivalent of $2,600 per household.

The first sentence in the press release reads: "America is thinking too small when it comes to energy efficiency."

Is it ever. If thinking big could net U.S. consumers $400 billion in annual savings, here is an even more mind-blowing number: $16 trillion!. That is the estimated cumulative savings from 2012 through 2050 after paying for energy-efficiency upgrades, which admittedly would require up-front investment in most cases. After all, equipment has to be purchased and workers paid to install it.

Still, it would lead to an economic boost, giving families more money to spend and businesses more cash to invest - leading to at least 1.3 million new jobs by 2050. Wouldn't a Manhattan Project devoted to energy efficiency and clean energy make sense?

Energy efficiency is a gift that keeps on giving: The savings continue after the initial costs are recouped, often in as little as two years. the authors cite evidence that equates energy-efficiency upgrades to a return of 17 percent to 25 percent on investment. What other (legal) investment reaps those kinds of gains?

Deutsche Bank reaffirms that here, concluding after exhaustive research that energy-efficiency upgrades are a safe investment. A bank executive said in a study cited by CleanTechnica that, "...Savings alone were sufficient to fully support loans for energy efficiency capital improvements." As a follow-up, this piece in Forbes says loans that fund energy-efficiency retrofits could make money for banks.

Those kinds of benefits are often ignored when assessing the power of energy efficiency, experts say. "Unfortunately, these non-energy benefits from energy efficiency measures are often omitted from conventional performance metrics," the authors of the ACEEE study contend.

And let's not forget the environmental and other benefits. "There is a strong historical record that energy efficiency can provide perhaps the largest single wedge of GHG emissions reductions," the study notes. The report also cites lower maintenance costs after the upgrades.

Both studies reinforce our belief that energy efficiency is the low-hanging fruit of the clean-energy movement. Our nonprofit works with local governments to reduce energy consumption, and has helped Valley communities realize energy savings of more than 16 million kWh.

That's a big deal in this era of shredded budgets and staff cuts. Maybe we can help preserve someone's job by shaving thousands off a power bill.

That's not to say that progress isn't being made. President Obama and former President Bill Clinton tag-teamed on this $4 billion plan, more businesses and organizations (check out this link) are discovering the power of energy efficiency, and California is considering instituting the nation's first energy-efficiency standards for battery chargers, which waste enough electricity to power a city the size of Bakersfield, according to this story in the San Jose Mercury News.

California is the nation leader in energy-efficiency, but other states are nipping at its heels. In Tennessee, officials are using some money from a $24 million settlement with the TVA to fund energy-efficiency programs. Minnesota also is getting in on the act. More on that here and here.

Individual states, businesses and groups are focusing on energy efficiency because they recognize the benefits to their entities. But a unified campaign is lacking, although this gives me hope. Saving energy saves money, creates financially stronger households and businesses and is good for the environment. It's time to get serious about it.

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