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Is energy efficiency condemned to be the “eat your peas” technology?

3 min. read

It’s hard to argue with the idea that energy efficiency is the most under-told part of America’s clean energy economy, despite the efforts to date of some pretty smart, committed people. We could go such a long way to cutting our use of the most destructive forms of energy and addressing global climate disruption if we just stopped wasting so much.

So why aren’t we talking more about energy efficiency, and why doesn’t this question get more attention?

We had a great opportunity to parse this question at our recent Scaling Green Communicating Energy Lecture Series presentation by New York Times’ senior energy reporter Matt Wald (see part 1 of our series on Wald’s talk here). Sitting in our full-house audience for Wald’s lecture were Institute for Building Efficiency (IBE) Executive Director Jennifer Layke and Monica Zimmer, Director of Global Public Relations for IBE’s sponsor, Johnson Controls. Layke and Zimmer came armed with their new and very compelling Energy Efficiency Indicator survey. The report documents growing private sector interest in cutting energy waste, and in making commercial buildings operate more cleanly.

According to the IBE report, in fact, “[o]ver 60 percent of global respondents said their organizations were investing in energy efficiency.”

And no wonder businesses are interested in energy efficiency.

Rocky Mountain Institute Chairman and Chief Scientist Amory Lovins has found that “adopting efficiency technologies aggressively yet cost-effectively, yield[s] at least a 12% annual real rate of return.” In addition, Lovins’ analysis finds that “by 2050, emerging efficiency technologies could reduce U.S. industry’s annual primary energy use by 2.3 quads,” with savings “upwards of a half-trillion dollars in 2010 net present value, with savings 2.5 times their cost—not to mention direct and indirect gains in quality, throughput, other non-energy benefits, and of course global competitiveness.” Impressive.

So why isn’t energy efficiency routinely at the top of the national energy discussion? Matt Wald, the dean of the national energy press corps - and someone with deep experience in covering energy efficiency issues - put it bluntly:

Energy efficiency is like flossing your teeth, it’s a wonderful idea but it’s hard to get people to do it…I went out with a home weatherizer to a low-income household. It was a house that was strikingly similar to my own, it was a suburban house of about the same vintage, and the reason it was low income was it was a family where the father…had some horrible disease and was in a nursing home…The construction of the house in the mid-70s was poor…Fixing it was labor intensive and unsexy…[Energy efficiency] doesn’t make a whole lot of economic sense at $2 a million Btu [for natural gas]…and it’s painstaking work that requires skill, etc., and it’s disruptive. And saving energy is number 11 on people’s top 10 list of things to do, despite whatever they tell you.

It’s tough feedback, but clean tech communicators need to take it seriously, and to understand that we have to approach energy efficiency communications differently. There has to be a way for us to make the energy efficiency opportunity a compelling national no-brainer that is never very far from the top of the agenda.

How can we not do this? RMI documents that “America’s 120 million buildings consume 42% of the nation’s primary energy, [and] 72% of its electricity…[but] they also present juicy opportunities to profit from new business initiatives and create jobs, save money, and improve public health and environmental stewardship?”

In addition to IBE and RMI, there’s a blizzard of numbers to further document the tremendous opportunities in energy efficiency. We’ve written about some of them, including milestone retrofits like the Empire State Building’s LEED Gold rating ($4.4 million in savings and a three-year payback period).

But, as Matt Wald’s response tells us, we won’t make energy efficiency the national imperative just through more numbers, studies and examples. We need to find the powerful narrative and scale the communications investment that drives it home.