It’s rare that a 60-page policy paper makes for riveting reading. But a new report, The World Economic Forum’s Energy Vision Update 2010, does exactly that. Bringing together dozens of top thinkers from both the public and private sectors to address the issue of energy efficiency, the overall message is a hopeful one: small changes to the way we use energy can be a fast and affordable means of reducing our emissions...right now.
The introductory essay, from the Chief Executive Officer of Brazilian energy company Petrobras, sets the tone: “a lasting lesson from the recent economic crisis is that business as usual is not sustainable. It is time to change paradigms.”
And improvements in energy efficiency offer the quickest path there, providing substantial short-term cuts in carbon emissions and saving a mint in the process. Steven Chu, Secretary of the Department of Energy, estimates $680 billion dollars in savings by 2020. Emphasing the relative ease of implementation, he described these savings as “low-hanging fruit.”
So, how do we harvest that fruit?
We start in San Francisco—a leader in energy policy innovation for the past decade. Writing in the same report, Mayor Gavin Newsom outlines the Power Savers Program, his city’s response to California’s 2001 energy crisis. In that program, free energy audits, technical assistance and direct incentives for small-business owners resulted in savings exceeding $3.5 million.
Meanwhile, additional programs in San Francisco focused on the public sector, installing energy-efficient lighting in clinics, hospitals and police stations. Over the last decade, these combined efforts have resulted in more than $22 million and 60,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions saved—impressive for a city of 800,000. Now, Chu wants to see it spread across a country of 300 million.
With simple improvements in the efficiency of our buildings, Chu says we could reduce energy use by 25-30% over the next 20 years. Superficial modifications like air-tight ducts, more efficient doors, window and insulation would provide most of the savings.
And reforms to public services in the U.S. are already moving forward. The United States Postal Service has contracted an energy advisory group to help it increase efficiency and reduce environmental impact. While it’s only the initial step, improved efficiency at the USPS could be huge: it currently employs over 650,000 people and has the world’s largest fleet of civilian vehicles.
Given the environmental, social and economic virtues, it’s hard to imagine any opposition to an aggressive, wide-scale energy efficiency program. There’s something in it for everyone: fiscal hawks get the cost-cutting features, greens get the emissions reductions, corporations get government assistance in trimming their electricity bill, and the national security crowd gets reduced dependance on foreign oil.
Still, for all the high talk, this “low-hanging fruit” is still hanging. May we pluck it before it rots on the vine.
- Lance Steagall