Boosting the Cool Factor of Energy Efficiency

An apprentice trains for a job in energy efficiency. Photo by EE Image Database/Flickr

Energy efficiency’s image is due for a makeover. Long seen as one of the simplest ways to reduce consumer costs, energy efficiency also offers multiple benefits that improve people’s lives while cutting air pollution and curbing climate-warming emissions. And yet, somehow, a certain “cool factor” has been missing.

Globally, one-third of the world’s energy is consumed by buildings, but most buildings are deeply inefficient. Just implementing today’s best practices could cut global energy demand by one-third by 2050. In cities, cooperation among urban leaders can avoid locking-in outdated, polluting technologies with higher operating costs. Improving the energy efficiency of buildings is a fast, cost-effective way to manage carbon pollution, spur economic development and enhance local air quality.

Efforts have been made in the last decade to alter the image of energy efficiency, particularly through the introduction of smart technology and sophisticated equipment. But to really make energy efficiency cooler and more attractive, we need political will. This is especially true for buildings where the benefits of greater energy efficiency can spread far beyond consumers, and is particularly apt in the case of the United States, which iswidely viewed as an energy spendthrift.

So, what needs to change?

First, technology. While evaluating fuel economy in vehicles is engrained in drivers, the same is not yet true for building owners and managers, who usually see energy efficiency as an afterthought. A new, positive user experience is, however, emerging from smart systems, which give consumers the ability to control their power consumption: alerting them via their phone when they have left on a light; giving them the ability to remotely control the temperature in their homes; and showing them how much solar power they are generating on their rooftops. This technology is changing the way that consumers view efficiency: They can immediately see the economic advantages, and it is making their lives easier and better.

Next, equipment. Energy-efficient heating and cooling systems and appliances have multiplied in the U.S. in the last 25 years, coinciding with the 1992 creation of the voluntary Energy Star programme, which labels household and commercial equipment to indicate their levels of energy efficiency. More recently, the U.S. Energy Department’s Better Buildings Challenge has marshaled business, government and housing leaders to pledge to reduce energy use in their building portfolios. More than 250 leaders have done so, representing over $5.5 billion in investment.

U.S. Lagging Behind

That brings us to the need for political will to fully boost energy efficiency’s cool factor and ensure that all the benefits of saving energy are realized. Empowering consumers and leaders from diverse sectors to use power more efficiently is a step forward, but globally, higher standards and policy actions for energy efficiency are required to create transformative change.

And transformation is certainly needed in the U.S. The current administration has deferred action on five finalized appliance efficiency standards and could repeal another three. Scrapping these standards, which are the result of years of negotiation and stakeholder input, will hurt U.S. manufacturers whose equipment is obsolete by global standards and leave American consumers stuck with higher electricity bills for years. Global comparisons bear this out. In 2016, the U.S. was ranked eighth in terms of energy efficiency by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy behind Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, France, China and Spain.

Over the past decade, the U.S. and most other countries have improved their energy intensity, namely the energy use per unit of gross domestic product. The world is, however, still short of what is required to double the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency and meet the 2030 Sustainable Development Goal target. To mobilize political will and ensure that energy efficiency is recognized as a key part of the solution to the global climate challenge, requires a concerted effort by businesses, power utilities, technical experts, consumer advocates and others to push for higher standards for more efficient energy. This will encourage innovation and help realize the multiple benefits that will truly make energy efficiency cool.

This post originally appeared on Foresight.

Jennifer Layke is global director of WRI’s Energy Program