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The Clean Power Plan and Energy Efficiency

“Energy efficiency, as a plentiful resource for meeting electricity needs and one that is almost always the lowest cost, can appreciably improve the economics of reducing carbon, providing sustained reductions in energy use for consumers and businesses.” ~Union of Concerned Scientists, The Clean Power Plan is a Climate Game Changer. Here are Seven Ways to Strengthen it.

Last week, I asked, Who’s Afraid of the Clean Power Plan? This week, I will examine what power companies can do to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and toxics.

While many coal plants are receiving a “new lease on life” via conversion to natural gasi, this is not the most appropriate long-term solution. Energy Manager Today recently outlined “5 Trends Disrupting the Global Energy Landscape.”ii These include:

  • Progress in global carbon schemes
  • Geopolitics affecting the global LNG markets
  • The revival of US energy self-sufficiency

In short, it appears to us that:

  • Increasingly, carbon’s externalities (costs not reflected in previous market pricing) will be priced on the global market, regardless of how long the U.S. drags its feet.
  • Energy prices will remain volatile due to global factors beyond our control – so long as we are paying for carbon-based fuels, as opposed to utilizing “free fuel” solar-, wind-, and geothermal-based technologies.
  • While Energy Manager Today touts the “modern-day oil boom” that is fracking, it seems clear that energy self-sufficiency should begin with energy efficiency – per Amory Lovins’ negawatt revolutioniii – rather than building yet another carbon bubble.

Despite the hype, fracking is not the path to long-term American energy independence. As Mississippi’s Governor recently lamented the falling price of oil, “fracking is expensive and relies on a high global price of oil. A plummeting price of oil could portend the plummeting of many smaller oil and gas companies.”iv

So what is the answer to dirty, fossil-fueled power? Perhaps renewable energy technologies like wind and solar spring to mind. Yes… BUT: As noted above, the first thing we need to do is become more energy-efficient. Energy efficiency isn’t just the proverbial low-hanging fruit; it’s fruit that’s already on the ground! All we have to do is pick it up.

Or, as we say in the green building industry, “You must eat your energy efficiency vegetables before rushing to your renewable energy desserts.” (To carry this analogy a step further, carbon-based fuels are energy “fast foods,” whose cheap prices reflect non-market subsidies, but whose costs are rapidly becoming evident around our “waste”-lines.)

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) reports on energy efficiency trends in their “Is Per Capita Electricity Use Permanently Flat in the U.S.?”

While local renewable energy and energy efficiency are proving to be near-existential threats to electric utilities in the early 21st century, the trends aren’t the same. The rapid rise of renewable energy is but a decade old, but the trend toward falling electricity consumption is 50 years in the making.v

The ILSR concludes that “Although each decades’ trend line has flattened, the economy made a major shift in the year 2000, in what so far appears to be a permanent shift toward stagnant or lower per capita electricity consumption.”vi

Line chart illustrating Flattening Electricity Consumption per capita in the U.S.

It’s already likely too late to avoid a 1.5C global warming temperature rise,vii but that only makes immediate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that much more critical. Indeed, as coal is expected to account for more than a third of global electricity generation in 2030,viii the U.S. must assume a leadership role in reducing carbon emissions if the rest of the world is to follow. American decarbonization is not only possible – to the tune of 80% emissions reductions below 1990 baseline by 2050ix – as we have seen, it is a matter of life-and-death.

The New York Times comments: “President Obama could leave office with the most aggressive, far-reaching environmental legacy of any occupant of the White House.”x Personally, I disagree with the many detractors of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan: It’s not a “war on coal.” Burning coal (and carbon pollution in general) is a war on human health and the very future of our planet.

Won’t you help us pick up some of this energy efficiency “fruit” (for homes and businesses) just lying on the ground? In a 2008 interview, energy-efficiency guru Amory Lovins was asked, “What's the most promising new energy source?” Lovins’ answer: “The first 10 or so on my list are ways to wring far more work out of the energy that we already have much more cheaply than buying it. Typically, if we do that right in our buildings, vehicles, and factories, the capital cost will be comparable to today’s or even lower.”xi

Kyle G. Crider (MPA, LEED AP ND) is a professional science and sustainability “story teller.” In his spare time he is pursuing his Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary (Environmental Health) Engineering and traveling the highways and by-ways of home state with his wife Beverly in search of fact, fiction, and folklore for Strange Alabama.