Energy Efficiency: Still the Biggest Bang for the Buck

09/30/19

Most people who lived through the Great Depression (like my grandparents) learned a waste-not-want-not life strategy that compelled them to save everything that someone might need one day. “A penny saved is a penny earned” dictated much of their actions, and possessions were repaired rather than replaced. It was practiced in the extreme during the Depression, but it wasn’t new.

Since practically forever, people have known how to save, reuse, maximize, stretch – and waste nothing. It has only been since the mid-1900s – a minuscule nano-fraction of human existence – that people have become okay with waste. The cultural shift toward convenience and hyper-busy lives, combined with the advent of lightweight plastic and cheap energy, delivered us to a place where getting rid of stuff is a daily problem for households, governments and the world.  Never in human history has waste been encouraged to proliferate at today’s levels.

Wasted materials contribute to growing landfills and oceanic pollution. Wasted water needlessly uses energy to reclean. Wasted food represents a squandering of economic and environmental resources.

And then there’s energy.

There are multiple, complex layers of energy waste. At the very bottom and hardest to reach level is waste that only advanced technology or massive global policy change can solve. And at the very top is waste than can be avoided with little sacrifice and simple action.

As we approach Energy Efficiency Day on October 2, I want to focus on the shallow layers of energy waste. For both businesses and individuals, there is great opportunity here. 

  1. Becoming more efficient can cost very little. True, companies and people can spend a lot to minimize their energy footprint, and for those with means, it’s a great investment. But among the top echelons of energy waste, there are so many actions that cost nothing – like switching off lights when no one is using them, turning on a fan instead of turning down the thermostat, and not letting your engine idle while parked. In business settings, these practices can add up to a lot of energy not wasted. 
  2. Increasing efficiency improves air quality. Less energy used = fewer emissions generated = cleaner air for everyone to breathe. Emissions generated by energy use contribute to all manner of health problems, all over the world. Better air quality = better health for all. (Fact from ACEEE and Physicians for Social Responsibility: Reducing annual electricity use by 15% nationwide would save more than six lives every day, prevent nearly 30,000 asthma episodes each year, and save Americans up to $20 billion through avoided health harms annually.)
  3. Energy efficiency saves money and resources. For both the corporate bottom line and the household budget, wasting less energy means saving more money. (EPA Fact: Since 1992, ENERGY STAR® and its partners have helped families and businesses save more than $450 billion in energy costs and over 3.5 trillion kWh of electricity, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 3.1 billion metric tons. ACEEE Fact: Since 1990, savings from energy efficiency gains have averted the need to build 313 large power plants and has delivered cumulative savings of nearly $790 billion for Americans.)

Simply put, the ROI for energy efficiency is enormous, on both personal and business bottom lines and for the society at large. We have yet to exhaust the low-hanging fruit in the energy efficiency arena. There is so much opportunity, especially for businesses, to reap significant rewards and be an agent for change in encouraging and enabling energy waste reduction.

New and emerging innovations in renewable energy suggest the real possibility – probability even – of a future where everyone has access to endless clean energy. Supporting these advancements is vital to a sustainable future, but we can’t lose sight of the ever-present fundamental commitment to efficiency. Not being wasteful has always been a good idea, and it always will.

Sabrina Cowden
Sabrina Cowden