Energy Efficiency: Saving Energy, Money, and the Environment

Compact florescent lightbulb
Energy efficiency investments —like this compact fluorescent lightbulb—can pay off in the long run.

Most experts agree that energy efficiency is the “low-hanging fruit” in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and avoiding looming energy shortages. Even proponents of renewable energy technologies acknowledge that conservation is the most immediate and often the most cost-effective way to reduce oil dependency. But although opportunities for saving money while conserving energy abound, the extra effort and upfront costs of obtaining energy-saving devices have deterred many U.S. industries and consumers from investing in them, according to the New York Times.

The consulting firm McKinsey & Company recently conducted a global survey of the length of time people would find acceptable for earning back investments in energy efficiency. A quarter of respondents were not willing to spend any money to save energy, and half said they would want to earn the money back in two years or less. “That means about 75 percent of the public will require economies that are just not there,” Pedro Haas, a McKinsey energy expert, told the Times.

Utilities may be more willing to make investments in energy savings than the average consumer. James E. Rogers, chief executive of Duke Energy, supports the idea of utilities covering the upfront costs of energy-saving consumer items—such as more-efficient but costlier air conditioners for people’s homes—and then adding a small fee to the customer’s electric bill as a return on the investment. Nancy C. Floyd of Nth Power, an investment banking firm that specializes in energy, notes that because utilities already have a relationship with individual home and building owners, they are well positioned to promote efficiency.

But so far, most utilities find it easier to stick to conventional ways of making energy rather than conserving it. Their eagerness to invest in low-return power generation projects, combined with consumers’ underutilization of high-return efficiency investments, has made U.S. energy consumption 20 to 40 percent higher than it would otherwise be, according to Ralph Cavanagh of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Even so, there has been progress. Total U.S, energy use per dollar of gross national product (GNP) has been reduced by 49 percent since the 1970s, according to the Worldwatch Institute’s American Energy report. “Compared to a 1973 baseline, America now saves more energy than it produces from any single source, including oil,” the report notes. Still, U.S. energy use per dollar of GNP is almost twice that of other industrialized countries.

To learn about ways you can save energy and money, visit buyenergyefficient.org.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.