Energy efficiency is many things to many people, encompassing a wide range of technologies and approaches, from building insulation or LED lightbulbs to vehicle fuel economy or manufacturing practices. Its diverse and ubiquitous nature explains why it’s often difficult to characterize efficiency’s full impact, and why there hasn’t been a single resource that summarizes energy efficiency’s full range of benefits.
With that in mind, the Alliance to Save Energy joined with the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) and the Business Council for Sustainable Energy (BCSE) in December to release the Energy Efficiency Impact Report (EE Impact Report) – a first-of-its-kind publication that uses reams of data and intuitive graphics to tell the comprehensive story of energy efficiency’s impact on the U.S. economy, environment, and society. While there’s no shortage of technical reports that discuss the benefits of energy efficiency in specific sectors, the EE Impact Report instead tells a broader story of this incredible resource by characterizing 54 indicators that highlight the breadth, depth, and diversity of the energy efficiency market and explore how policies and programs have incentivized energy efficiency in a variety of sectors.
Through this analysis, the report identifies six main cross-cutting themes:
- Energy efficiency fuels the economy. Energy efficiency doesn’t imply economic sacrifices. Energy productivity doubled since 1980; the U.S. supports 2.3 million energy efficiency jobs; and energy-efficient technologies, such as refrigerators, have seen greater efficiency accompanied by increased capacity and falling prices for consumers.
- Energy efficiency improves lives and the planet. Energy efficiency not only saves energy, but provides a host of co-benefits. Energy efficiency investments since 1980 have prevented a 60% increase in carbon emissions, avoided over $500 million in spending on public health, and lead to more productive, profitable, and healthy commercial working environments.
- Energy efficiency policies work. Investments in energy efficiency programs deliver results. Utility energy efficiency programs scaled up from 2006 to the present, seeing a tripling of electricity savings; in natural gas, increased investments since 2011 led to a doubling of savings. Additionally, states that implement policies to incentivize energy efficiency see positive effects.
- Energy efficiency is a high-priority resource. Energy efficiency can be considered as a resource similar to other generation resources (coal, natural gas, oil, nuclear, hydro, renewables) – to satisfy demand, an electric utility can choose to save a kWh, or generate a new one. When considered in this frame, energy efficiency is not only a plentiful resource, but it is often the most affordable. In many cases utilities view energy efficiency as a reliable resource necessary to achieve state-level decarbonization goals and to keep the lights on.
- Energy efficiency has untapped potential. While energy efficiency has driven enormous positive impacts, we haven’t exhausted its potential. This is true for the known technologies that have been available for decades, as well as for new technologies and innovations that are beginning to emerge (such as smart meters, advanced controls, automation, and artificial intelligence). Estimates show that by relying on existing technology and ramping up our policy ambition, aggressive energy efficiency deployment could cut our carbon emissions in half.
- Energy efficiency investment is critical. While the numbers are not comprehensive on the total levels of energy efficiency investment, one estimate from the International Energy Agency notes that energy efficiency investment in the United States fell by 18% from 2016 to 2018, and investment has also slowed in PACE financing and Green Bank investments. While investments continue to grow in other areas, this is a warning sign that our commitment to energy efficiency is wavering.
Energy efficiency has always required enormous commitment on the part of many parties: governments, industry stakeholders, society. The last 40 years have seen energy efficiency stabilize energy consumption despite our increasingly energy-rich lives. But in a time of climate change and international competition, we don’t have 40 years to engineer the next level of progress.