Letters from the West

Energy efficiency can reduce carbon without hurting economy, study says

If you listen to the scientific community we have to 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.


If you listen to the business community, 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.


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 to quick changes are finding life increasingly difficult.


At the heart of the carbon economy issue is energy since today 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 crucial.


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% below 2012 levels. The study recommends setting a state energy savings target of 1.5% per year, updating national model building codes, constructing heat and power facilities together, and adopting standards for five appliances.


These fall far from catastrophic.  Such actions would save 600 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions, save over 925 million megawatt-hours of electricity, reduce electricity demand by 25%, and avoid the need for 494 power plants by 2030, the study said.


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


These seem so easy right? Remember, utilities have billions of dollars invested in coal plants and current technologies that they and their customers would have to eat.


Builders, especially contractors in Idaho, fight new building codes that increase energy efficiency in part because consumers don’t value the long term saving over up front costs. And banks don’t recognize the added value that improved efficiency systems add 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, which markets power from the Northwest’s hydro dams. Johnson set the agency on a path of promoting energy efficiency.


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