Energy Efficiency – Red, Blue or Happily Neither?

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We’re so politically polarized about energy, it’s news when we’re not.

Exceptions exist, of course, but generally one side identifies with fossil fuels, the other with renewable energy. And energy efficiency seems to be the lucky orphan left out of the pick.

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy talked about this unique positioning last week when it released its annual state ranking for energy efficiency. True, the top states are blue: Massachusetts, California, New York, Oregon, and Vermont. But look at the states moving up the line most quickly.

“These findings show that energy efficiency is being embraced by Republicans and Democrats alike at the state level,” said Steven Nadel, ACEEE executive director. “That nonpartisan status is crucial because too many conversations about U.S. energy policy begin with the false premise that the only way to safeguard our reliable energy future is to expand our supply. While some supply investments will be needed, the truth is that step one should always be energy efficiency, our cheapest, cleanest, and fastest energy resource.”

Advocates of combined heat and power noted a similar phenomenon at the US Combined Heat and Power Association’s annual meeting in Washington, DC last week. (CHP, a highly efficient although somewhat obscure technology, makes up 12 percent of US electric capacity.)

“The issues related to CHP on both tickets are the same when you look at energy independence, clean energy, energy security – all the things that CHP brings to the energy debate. So regardless of how the election turns out, we should continue to see a bright future for CHP,” said Joe Allen, USCHPA chairman and Solar Turbines director of government affairs.

Perhaps energy efficiency escapes partisan titles because it is technology neutral – we can save any kind of energy. Massachusetts is number one for the second year in ACEEE’s ranking largely because of its Green Communities Act, legislation enacted in 2008 that boosted renewable energy and sustainable practices. In contrast, Oklahoma is rising quickly in the ranking, partly because of its natural gas efficiency programs. Oklahoma also significantly increased its electric energy efficiency budget and upped its energy savings, as did Montana and South Carolina.

Other policies that are neither green nor blue also boosted efficiency in states. For example, 24 states now have portfolio standards, targets to achieve a certain amount of energy savings by a prescribed date. Arizona, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont have the most aggressive portfolio standards, according to ACEEE. (On the national level, various pieces of legislation propose national efficiency portfolio standards, but Congress has taken no action on them.)

While the nation may face a stalemate on many issues, it does not on energy efficiency. The resource is growing rapidly. Utility energy efficiency budgets were $7 billion in 2011, a 27% increase over the previous year. Meanwhile, energy savings increased 40% from customer-funded efficiency programs to 18 million MWh, roughly equivalent to the electricity Wyoming uses each year, according to ACEEE.

Massachusetts’ held the top position for the second year because many parties sat at the table and worked together, according Jeremy McDiarmid, Massachusetts director for Environment Northeast, an organization that has played a key role helping the state develop energy efficiency policies.

Such cooperation is hard to find on the national energy scene. Still, energy efficiency, at least, appears to be welcome at almost any table, when and if, the parties finally gather.

Elisa Wood is a long-time energy writer whose work appears in many of the industry’s top magazines and newsletters. She is publisher of the Energy Efficiency Markets podcast and newsletter.

About Author

Walter’s contributions to CleanTechies over the past 4 years have been instrumental in growing the publications social media channels via his ongoing editorial and data driven strategies. He is the founder and managing director of Sunflower Tax, a renewable energy tax and finance consultancy based in San Diego, California. Active in the San Diego clean technology community, participating in events sponsored by CleanTech San Diego, EcoTopics, and Cleantech Open San Diego, Walter has also been a presenter at numerous California Center for Sustainability (CCSE) programs. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego School of Law where he teaches a course on energy taxation and policy.

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