Energy Efficiency: Gaining Traction or Spinning Its Wheels?

Congress, businesses, and consumers show an appetite for the proverbial low-hanging fruit.

Remember the Brouhaha Over the Light Bulb Efficiency Standard?

On December 19, 2007, the Energy Independence and Security Act [pdf] became law with bipartisan Congressional support and a stroke of President George W. Bush’s pen. The bill attempts to reduce energy consumption and enhance national security in the United States through a number of provisions including increasing fuel-economy standards, improving building codes, and increasing biofuel production.

(Related Quiz: What You Don’t Know About Energy-Efficient Lighting)

The law also mandates greater efficiency in household light bulbs, a measure already adopted by most other developed economies, including countries in the European Union [pdf], Australia and China (whose phase-out of inefficient lights is set to begin in October 2012).

But all that was back before bipartisanship became a dirty word. When 2011 rolled around and the clock on implementing the first phase of the light bulb standard began to tick down, outrage over the prospect of Americans losing the “freedom” to purchase their light bulbs of choice began sounding throughout the land (see here and here), on talk shows (~6:02), in presidential stump speeches, and in Congress.

(Related: Light Bulb Savings Calculator)

Last July Rep. Joe Barton’s (R-TX) “Better Use of Light Bulbs” (BULB) bill to block the new standards won a simple majority in a 233-193 vote in the House, but failed to get the necessary two-thirds support to go forward. Days later, the House passed by a voice vote an amendment introduced by Rep. Michael Burgess’s (R-TX) to an appropriations bill that would defund implementation of the new light bulb standards. A similar amendment effectively delaying implementation of the standards until October 2012 was passed by Congress in December. Barring Congressional action in the next four months that would repeal parts of the Bush-era Energy Independence and Security Act, more efficient “100-watt” light bulbs will be the rule instead of exception in the United States come October.* (See here and here.) And as per the 2007 law, greater efficiency from other light bulb classes will follow (see chart below).

Phase-Out Schedule of Inefficient General Service Incandescent Light Bulbs

Current Wattage Rated Lumen Ranges Maximum Rate Wattage Minimum Rate Lifetime Effective Date 100 1490-2600 72 1,000 hours 1/1/2012 75 1050-1489 53 1,000 hours 1/1/2013 60 750-1049 43 1,000 hours 1/1/2014 40 310-749 29 1,000 hours 1/1/2014

(Sources: Energy Independence and Security Act and Sylvania)

Tea Party Out of Step

The battle over light bulb standards may end up being just a skirmish in an all-out war against energy efficiency standards. Tea Party activists and like-minded conservatives see a sinister agenda in efforts to make America more energy efficient. (See here and here.) According to a New York Times article, moves toward energy efficiency have been seen as a plot to advance the United Nations’ Agenda 21 resolution, deemed by activists tied to the Tea Party to be a UN-led conspiracy to subject Americans to a “one world order.”

The results of a survey released last Monday by the Deloitte Center for Energy Solutions and Harrison Group suggest that the Tea Party may be whistling the wrong tune on this one. The two-part survey included “one-on-one interviews with senior executives across all industries, as well as over 600 online interviews with business decision makers” and “2,200 demographically balanced online interviews of consumers.”

The findings? Both business leaders and consumers were bullish on energy efficiency. Why? Because it saves money. Perhaps most fascinating was the silver lining the responding consumers saw in the recession: “61% believe that ‘going through the recession has ultimately been good because it makes us more efficient and reminds us what is important.’”

Most of the companies surveyed said [pdf] they planned on maintaining the energy savings they achieved during the downturn and many said they planned on finding additional savings. Why is energy efficiency becoming more of a business favorite? Economics, not the environment. The survey found that “85% of businesses view reducing electricity costs as essential to staying competitive from a financial perspective.”

Is Congress Ready for More?

All this may explain why Congress is tiptoeing toward possible passage of two new bipartisan energy-efficient bills: the Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act (S. 1000) [pdf] sponsored by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Rob Portman (R-OH) and the Implementation of National Consensus Appliance Agreement Act of 2011 (S. 398) introduced by Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), which would basically be an update of the Federal Appliance Standards program that President Ronald Reagan signed into law in 1987. The two bills would set energy codes for buildings and standards for manufacturing as well as provide for worker training. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy estimates that together the two bills would ultimately:

  • add up to 100,000 new jobs by 2020,
  • save consumers about $5 billion per year, and
  • cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions about 130 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year by 2030, or about 2 percent relative to today.

Sounds like a good deal. Even the U.S. Chamber of Congress thinks so ($ub r’qd).

State Prognosis on Energy Efficiency

With thriftiness looking like it will stick for most consumers and businesses, and Congress threatening to get into the bipartisan energy-efficiency act, one has to wonder how the states are doing on their own.

Easy question to answer thanks to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy’s new state energy-efficiency scorecard. Like most scorecards, there are those on the top and those at the bottom. And there aren’t any great surprises there.

The top ten: Massachusetts, California, New York, Oregon, Washington, Vermont, Rhode Island, Minnesota, Connecticut, and Maryland.

At the bottom: South Dakota, Alabama, Missouri, West Virginia, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Kansas, Mississippi, Wyoming, and North Dakota.

A state-by-state ranking of who’s on top and who’s at the bottom when it comes to energy efficiency. (Source: “
Opportunity Knocks: Examining Low-Ranking States in the State
Energy Efficiency Scorecard
,” American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy/Michael Sciortino, Rachel Young, and Steven Nadel, May 2012. Used courtesy of ACEEE.)

So what’s keeping the bottom 10 from getting into the act? According to survey results also published in the ACEEE report, the most common barriers are:

  1. A belief that energy efficiency is prohibitively expensive;
  2. A misalignment of utility business model, where utilities see energy efficiency as in opposition to their profits instead of a pathway to avoid costly investments in new power plants; and
  3. Ideological aversion to mandates.

Of course some of the states at the bottom of the list are big producers of fossil fuels and might just see energy efficiency as something that would put a damper on their profits by lowering the demand for and therefore the price of those fossil fuels. Interestingly, according to the Deloitte survey, most corporations and consumers, who have to pay the high prices, don’t see it that way. Unless Congress gets its act together and passes a nationwide bill, we could end up at a stalemate — a nation divided over energy efficiency. Instead of red and blue states, we could have fossil fuel-brown and energy-efficient green states. Which type of state would you choose?


End Note

* Lights currently referred to as “100 watts” will need to use a maximum of 72 watts under the new standards. Lumens, which refer to the amount of light produced, will appear on light-bulb packages along with the new wattage. Putting it all together, today’s “100 watt” bulbs that produce about 1600 lumens will need to use 72 watts or less once the new standards go into effect.

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