BFP: Use energy efficiency to salvage economy

Aug 03, 2010 No Comments by

Article re-posted here from the Burlington Free Press.

BY JOEL BANNER BAIRD, FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER • FRIDAY, JULY 30, 2010

David Goldstein would be forgiven had he toted a refrigerator to his brown-bag talk Tuesday at the Vermont Energy Investment Corp. in Burlington. The California physicist (aware, no doubt, of the mechanical forces needed to attain the second floor) settled for handier props: his smart phone and a digital camera.

But the evolution of the icebox, particularly during the past 30 years, rose again and again in Goldstein’s presentation as the poster-child of energy efficiency — and as a model for broader, market-based innovations that might rescue our economy.

Hardly a “sexy” parable, he noted, but an apt one: The 21st-century American fridge consumes about two-thirds less electricity than the average 1973 model.

Goldstein, who co-chairs the energy program for the National Resources Defense Council, received a MacArthur (“genius”) Fellowship in 2002. He’s comfortable with numbers. And he’s still certain we have something to learn from our refrigerators.

To wit: There were some refrigerators kicking around in the ’70s and ’80s that used less electricity than the industry’s flagships — but they cost more. Some of their astute owners found they could recoup the added cost in about three years — a phenomenon that prompted California (and later, national) regulators to set higher efficiency standards for the ubiquitous appliance.

Prices for better performance fell, and continue to fall, Goldstein said, and the market for even more efficient models has inspired improvements ever since.

Extended to the rest of the economy, in what he calls “an exceedingly modest scenario that uses known, identified technologies,” America could trim energy use by 30 percent during the next 20 years. “We’ve seen that the ‘low-hanging fruit’ grows back after it’s been picked,” Goldstein said.

If we don’t warm up to efficiency’s potential, he added, America almost certainly will stall — weighted down with the same, outdated energy policies that landed us in the present recession.

Taking a page from the humble fridge’s history, Goldstein offered a simple formula: Starting now, we should invest in efficiencies that will recoup the added cost within three years.

Un-Sexy Sales
Yet efficiency is an exceedingly tough sell, he continued: Too often, it’s confused with its poor cousin, “conservation,” which consumers, investors and policymakers equate with dimmer lights, smaller appliances, grimmer-faced shareholders and voters, and fewer loads of laundry.

What’s the difference?

Efficiency (unlike austerity), Goldstein said, is the result of an ongoing scientific phenomenon: It is gleaned from “waste” that is inevitably released when we extract, refine and transport energy, and when we put it to work.

For the non-physicists in the room, he translated: “Efficiency means getting the same level of service, or better, using less energy.”

Still not sexy?

Try climate change. The cheapest and quickest way — by far — to moderate it, Goldstein said, is through policies that promote and reward efficiency.

He unveiled a nerdy irony nestled within the First Law of Thermodynamics (where energy can be transformed, but never really disappears). If energy really sticks around, then why has energy efficiency remained so doggone invisible in the national discussion on energy policy?

His explanations at the brown-bag followed several he cites more thoroughly in his book, “Invisible Energy: Strategies to Rescue the Economy and Save the Planet” (Bay Tree Publishing, 2009):

• Efficiency has no organized lobby in Congress.

• Economic modeling for efficiency is a young (and under-funded) science.

• Benefits of efficiency are emphatically dispersed and democratic.

• Investment has been slow: “Nobody can get rich quick in energy efficiency.”

Beyond The Fridge
Then Goldstein pulled out his smart phone and digital camera. Matched with their counterparts a generation ago, each represented a technological quantum leap. Measured against last year’s models, the gadgets possessed more modest features or price-drop.

Advances in efficiency work the same way, Goldstein said: They require alert producers and consumers, and a regulatory structure that recognizes the value of innovation.

“Waiting for breakthroughs is not how successful markets work,” he said. “They work through fast, incremental change.”

But Goldstein’s analysis and advocacy went far beyond appliances:

• “Location efficiencies” — smart-growth principles of town planning that promote mixed use, higher density development and pedestrian, bike and mass-transit options.

Goldstein projected maps of the San Francisco Bay on a screen. He’d found correlations between home foreclosures and the distance people lived from public transportation and urban work centers.

The cost of dependence on a car, he said, rarely figured into a lender’s mortgage calculation — and it should, just as surely as a home’s energy “operating cost” should be disclosed before a sale.

• Incentives and regulation — have been slow to emerge, in part because of Americans’ perceptions that they will lead (or have already led) to Soviet-style, centralized planning.

From his book: “America currently funds highway construction projects through gasoline taxes, and no one complains that this is a threat to free enterprise.” And: “This is not an issue of liberal versus conservative economics — or carrots and incentives versus sticks and standards. Rather, it is a matter of responding to how real-world markets work as distinct from some theoretical model.”

• Renewable energy — is an “unequal partner” to efficiency, because it presents a less-effective strategy for kick-starting (and sustaining) the economy and slowing global climate change.

Back to the book: “Because efficiency achieves the same outcome with less production, efficiency can deliver more cost-savings than renewables — even if both are held to the same environmental and cost constraints. Since less production is required, an investment in efficiency will reduce emissions more than the same investment in renewables.”

He elaborates: “Efficiency has already been proven to work, 1) because it is cheaper than both conventional and alternative sources of energy and 2) because energy that is never created or used is pollution-free.”

• Utilities — should be structured so that increased customer efficiency doesn’t lower the utility’s profit.

Goldstein writes that energy providers should be able to collect the cost of funding efficiency programs through their billing (much as Efficiency Vermont operates): “Utilities can and should also be rewarded for their success in reducing costs to customers.”

Wrong Answer
Goldstein peppers his discussions with a reminder that America’s efficiency future is utterly realistic. It’s couched in math; all it lacks is political will.

“If we believed in it, we could do it tomorrow,” he said.

And if we don’t?

America’s economy is at stake.

And that’s not even factoring in global climate change.

“An error of pessimism,” Goldstein said, “is a really bad thing.”

Read the original: http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/article/20100730/NEWS02/100730025/1007/NEWS02/Speaker-implores-Use-energy-efficiency-to-salvage-economy#ixzz0vYI9fLeK

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