Rocky Barker: Northwest is the model for the future of energy

rbarker@idahostatesman.comMay 5, 2014 

To hear the scientific community talk, we must find a way to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions soon or face catastrophic changes from melting polar ice, ocean acidification, increased storms and rising oceans.

To hear the business community tell it, we can't transform our economy to meet this threat without catastrophic effects on the world economy that will send people and nations into bankruptcy.

Where you stand likely is tied to your political philosophy, your education, your location and your place in the economy.

I know, some people don't believe there is a threat. Some people don't worry about the national debt, either.

The transformation to a low-carbon economy comes at the same time we are experiencing a revolution in information technology that already has accelerated change in all of our lives. Those of us who can't adapt are finding life increasingly difficult.

The heart of the carbon-economy issue is energy. Our economy is tied to fossil fuels. The need to either find ways to sequester carbon from coal, gas and oil or move on to nuclear power and renewable energy sources is considered urgent.

But a new study by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a group that promotes simply using energy better, suggests we can reduce CO2 levels with no net cost to the economy.

The study shows how the Environmental Protection Agency could use four energy-efficiency strategies to reduce emissions to 26 percent below 2012 levels. The study recommends setting state energy-savings targets of 1.5 percent per year, updating national model building codes, constructing heat and power facilities together, and adopting standards for five appliances.

These steps are far from catastrophic. The study said such actions would save 600 million tons of greenhouse-gas emissions and more than 925 million megawatt-hours of electricity, reduce electricity demand by 25 percent and avoid the need for 494 power plants by 2030.

The study also suggests these actions would increase the national gross domestic product by $17.2 billion and create 611,000 new jobs across the country by 2030. This number includes people employed in jobs directly related to energy efficiency such as home contractors and construction, and people such as small business owners and their employees who benefit as money saved is spent back into the local economy.

Easy, right?

Remember, utilities have billions of dollars invested in coal plants and current technologies; they and their customers would have to eat those investments. Builders, especially contractors in Idaho, fight new building codes that increase energy efficiency (and building costs), in part because consumers don't value the long-term savings over the upfront costs. And banks don't recognize the added value that improved efficiency adds to a home.

But I think about the story of Idaho business executive Peter Johnson, who died earlier this year after transforming the Bonneville Power Administration in the 1980s. BPA markets electricity from the Northwest's hydro dams. Johnson set the agency on a path of promoting energy efficiency instead of building more power plants.

Since the 1980s, the Pacific Northwest has used energy efficiency to cut electric demand by 5,300 megawatts and preserve the region's low-cost-power advantage. This is a path the rest of the nation should follow.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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