Chapter 6 - Energy Sustainability

Part 9 - Energy Efficiency as a Resource

Data from World Bank

Energy is an integral part of our lives. Even more so, today's consumer wants energy that is not only low in cost, but also environmentally sound. Many current and common sources of energy today may be low in cost; however, they are by no means efficient. The United States is a large nation that consumes even larger amounts of energy. Increasing our energy efficiency is now recognized as one of the major steps, and the most inexpensive and easiest step, to get us to where we need to be to stabilize and rollback the atmospheric changes causing climate change.

For the past century, relatively inexpensive energy has fueled our economy and our lifestyle. Our consumption ethos, a largely false ethos of plenty and unlimited supply, has made energy conservation a term that carries the negative connotation of "doing without" rather than using carefully or sparingly, avoiding waste. The steadily increasing costs are energy and economic challenges are reviving energy conservation on all fronts of American life. Conservation can still mean turning the lights off, when not in use, but today, we can conserve energy, and reduce costs, by being more efficient in our energy use. Some simple changes in the way we use energy can result in more than eighty percent energy savings, saving money and cost to the environment, and that is a change for the positive, that we can all agree on.

Conservation is the behavioral act of simply using less energy, while efficiency is doing more work using less energy. The US is the largest energy consumer in the world. On a per capita basis, according to World Bank statistics, we each consumed over seven-thousand kilograms of oil equivalents. This places us near the middle of all countries when the major OPEC and high latitude, colder climate counties are accounted, but we rank very high as a mid-latitude, developed country. However, although we consume immense amounts of energy, our energy productivity is relatively low, particularly compared to developed nations in northwestern Europe and Japan.

Unlike energy conservation, which concentrates on using less total energy, energy efficiency is based on the principle of using energy more efficiently, not consuming less. Additionally, for every one dollar invested in energy efficiency, at least two dollars in benefit is seen, making energy efficiency a cost effective option. Our current energy system produces high energy losses between supply and demand. From the power plant to our homes and buildings, significant amounts of energy, about half, are lost as heat, and through transmission and distribution system losses. This loss alone suggests the potential for energy efficiency in meeting our future energy demands. As we track the energy we produce and pay for, and the energy that is wasted, we all have to ask ourselves, is there a better way to manage energy?

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Suggested Reading

  1. Unlocking Energy Efficiency in the US Economy. Executive Summary (2009) McKinsey & Company.