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Germany Tops Energy Efficiency Scorecard While U.S. Lags

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Transit depot, Munich (Photograph courtesy La Citta Vita, Flickr)

Germany is the winner and the United States, although showing some signs of progress, remains far from the top rung. World Cup soccer? Yes, but also energy efficiency efforts, according to new rankings released on Thursday.

Based on both policy and performance, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy’s International Scorecard put Germany first among the 16 major economies – accounting for 81 percent of global output – that were studied. Italy was second and the European Union as a whole was third. The United States sat far down the list in the 13th spot. The U.S. performed especially poorly in the transportation sector, ranking 15th.

“I’m excited about this report, but not excited about the U.S. place in this report,” Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vermont) said in an ACEEE-organized conference call. Welch has been working with Colorado Republican Cory Gardner on legislation to expand the use of energy performance contracting in federal buildings, one of a number of bills with bipartisan support that hasn’t been able to make it through one of the least productive Congresses in memory.

There might be no better example of this disconnect than the fate of a bill by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire) and Rob Portman (D-Ohio) to strengthen efficiency standards for federal, commercial and residential buildings and boost investment in energy-saving technologies, among other measures. Described by Politico as “innocuous and popular,” it fell victim to Keystone XL pipeline political maneuvering. (See related story: U.S. Efficiency Bill Dies Again in Congress)

Nevertheless, the ACEEE report did acknowledge some U.S. progress “in such areas as building codes, appliance standards, voluntary partnerships between government and industry, and, recently, fuel economy standards for passenger vehicles and heavy-duty trucks.” And there’s hope that proposed new Environmental Protection Agency rules on carbon emissions could spur states to act to improve energy efficiency. (See related: “Four Key Takeaways From EPA’s New Rule for Power Plants“)

“Energy efficiency will get a lot more attention if EPA finalizes this rule,” ACEEE Executive Director Steven Nadel said. “Energy efficiency is the low-cost compliance path for basically all the states – it often does the majority of what each state needs to do to meet the target.” The EPA has committed to finalizing the rule by next June.

This was the ACEEE’s second International Scorecard, but with adjusted metrics and four new countries included – India, Mexico, South Korea and Spain – the nonprofit organization said it provided both a broader and more precise picture of the state of energy efficiency around the world.

One of the more impressive results in the report was the showing of China, which improved from eighth all the way up to fourth. Westerners accustomed to grim images of pollution-shrouded Chinese cities might have expected China to be down near the bottom, but as Nadel noted, “pollution and efficiency are related, but they’re not the same thing.”

China did well in all four of the broad categories that went into the rankings – national efforts, buildings, industry and transportation – and even finished atop the rankings in buildings. But China still accounts for more than half the world’s coal consumption, and is the world leader in total carbon dioxide emissions.

It’s this sort of contradiction that leads some to question whether energy efficiency improvements can do as much as groups like the International Energy Agency and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change expect in the battle against global warming. The pro-nuclear Breakthrough Institute, for example, argues that predicted efficiency-driven improvements in energy intensity – energy expended per unit of output – are overstated and that more focus should go to decreasing the carbon intensity of the energy supply.

The ACEEE, for its part, doesn’t mention climate change in the new report. It instead presents energy efficiency as a way to “use fewer resources to achieve the same goals, thus reducing costs, preserving valuable resources, and gain a competitive edge over other countries.”