Efficiency Is the New Sexy

Just found what seems to be an enduring link to an August 2009 article from Science magazine: “Leaping the Efficiency Gap.” It is hopeful about energy efficiency, yet it captures the debate about whether efficiency in the United States can be achieved without pain. Most people these days seem to think some pain will be required, but they also think the potential is huge:

David Goldstein, who studied with [California efficiency expert Arthur] Rosenfeld and now co-directs work on energy policy for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), says California’s experience proves that carbon emissions can be contained and even reduced at minimal cost. “The most important lesson is: Success is possible, and a fairly limited set of policies gets you most of the way there,” Goldstein says. And, he adds, it’s not hard to go even further with energy saving: “The practical limits [of increased efficiency] have never been tested.”

The practical limits have never been tested.

How many times have I been exasperated by the wasteful habits of Americans? Just think how much we could accomplish if we just reduced the obvious inefficiencies. I bet if you thought about work and home and your neighborhood, you could identify 5 inefficiencies without even thinking. Mine would be (1) windows in my house that have lost their seal, (2) our old Dodge Dakota truck that somehow didn’t qualify for “cash for clunkers,” (3) my neighbors who don’t recycle, (4) Starbucks’ refusal to use 100% recycled paper coffee cups and compostable plastic glasses, and (5) all the windows that are currently the fashion in restaurants.

One of the article’s strengths is its focus on human ecology, or, the reason people don’t make energy-efficient choices that seem to be logical. Efficiency programs these days are moving away from financial incentives toward social incentives, such as the World War II slogan, “When you drive alone, you drive with Hitler.”

Or social incentives like these:

Every once in a while, however, circumstances force people to focus on energy. When they do, the results can be astonishing. In April 2008, an avalanche cut a transmission line that supplied Juneau, Alaska, with cheap hydropower. The city switched over to diesel generators, but the electricity they produced cost five times as much. City officials went looking for help and contacted Alan Meier, an LBNL conservation expert. “In a crisis, you can talk about behavior,” says Meier. The city spread the word that “good citizens save electricity [emphasis mine].” And they did, lowering thermostats, turning off lights, and unplugging electronic equipment. Over 6 weeks, Juneau’s electricity consumption fell by 40%, yet Juneau’s economy did not falter. The transmission line was repaired within 3 months; electricity use rebounded, but it remains about 6% below its preavalanche level. A similar phenomenon, but on a much larger scale, happened during a 2001 energy crisis in Brazil. The country “cut its power consumption by 20% in 6 weeks. That shows you how much behavior can get you,” Meier says.

Go read the article. It’s fun and has a lot of good information.