Energy efficiency is a big part of how the U.S. hopes to meet its greenhouse gas reduction targets, and the least controversial part by far. While closing coal-fired power plants annoys certain members of Congress and a lot of people in coal-producing states, most people can see the wisdom of using less energy to achieve the same result. In most cases, it’s just good business, and really a matter of common sense.
“The great thing about energy efficiency is that it always ends up saving consumers money,” says Gina McCarthy, the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “It’s all about technology innovation and information, and it’s an opportunity that everybody can participate in.”
Boston-born McCarthy took a break recently from battling the EPA’s many foes to talk up the value of efficiency to the economy. She described it as “really easy to sell” compared to the rest of her agency’s climate plan, and that certainly is how it appears given how many companies are now investing in efficiency initiatives. The EPA’s Energy Star program now has 16,000 members, all of which have committed to saving energy and cutting pollution.
To highlight some of the most aggressive companies, the agency recently selected 128 as “partners of the year.” These include clothing maker HanesBrands, which claims to have cut its energy use almost 24% since 2007, partly by recycling more fabric and organizing “energy treasure hunts” among its employees (with prizes for those who identify savings). Others include DirecTV, which in 2014 switched to Energy Star-rated receivers, saving customers an estimated $105 million a year.
The administration has programs to force or cajole companies into developing more energy-efficient cars, building and appliances. But McCarthy says the market can take care of itself most of the time. If you give people information about the long-term energy savings on a fridge, for example, they will normally go for it. Energy Star schemes in stores like Home Depot now allow side-by-side comparisons of models, showing not only base prices but prices with energy considered.
“The business community is telling us that [energy efficiency] is the future economically,” McCarthy says. “This is where jobs are being created, this is where innovation is happening. I think it’s a matter of the market having the information it needs for consumers to choose correctly.”
In fact, the Administration’s “Clean Power Plan”–the one that’s supposed to so controversial–isn’t all about closing power plants, at least not by federal fiat. It actually leaves the way open for states to make their own choices as to how to meet emissions targets and that includes options to improve energy efficiency. Analysts say some states could meet most of their targets just by reducing energy use.