Rightfully so, talk about energy use in the U.S. has largely been laser-focused on what kind of energy we’re talking about: Despite Donald Trump’s blind enthusiasm for the dying coal industry, renewables like wind and solar are growing; solar now provides twice as many jobs as the coal industry, and advocates expect renewables’ share of the market to continue to grow. But it’s also important not to overlook another crucial element in the whole discussion of energy use: consumer efficiency.
As it turns out, it’s much cheaper to train consumers to conserve energy than it would be to build new power plants to meet our needs; it goes without saying that it’s also much cleaner. Researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory studied energy efficiency programs from 2009 to 2013, collecting data from 36 states. The awareness programs they included were not just limited to the stereotypical pamphlet-in-mailbox variety: The researchers examined a whole range of consumer-targeted efficiency programs, from rebates for buying more efficient appliances, to assistance for low-income consumers, to home energy reports, which show how your power use stacks up to your neighbors’ in similar homes. The use of these reports tripled between 2011 and 2013, the authors noted in the study; they’ve made consumers more sensitive to how much energy they’re using (and consequently, how much money they’re spending).
Overall, the cost of these schemes averages out to $0.028 for every kilowatt hour saved–just over a quarter of the cost of the electricity itself. And that’s going off the price of electricity generated by existing plants–building a new coal-fired power plant would cost much more.
Apart from sparing utility companies from having to invest in new infrastructure, these efficiency programs also save consumers money. In California, $12 billion was lopped off utility bills from 2003 to 2013 thanks to ramped-up energy saving programs, with annual electricity bills averaging 18% below the rest of the U.S. “If California were as inefficient as Texas, Californians would be spending $9.5 billion more on electricity each year and $24 billion more if the state were as inefficient as Florida,” the Natural Resources Defense Council noted in a 2015 report on the state’s energy-efficiency efforts.
And the good news is that these strategies themselves are becoming more efficient. “Between 2009 and 2013, the cost of saving energy dropped by more than a third,” the NRDC’s energy program co-director Sheryl Carter wrote in a blog post. What’s more, there’s one big efficiency improvement that’s about to hit everyone: Better light bulbs. One would hope you already use LED bulbs in your home, but more than 2 billion sockets across the U.S. still hold inefficient varieties. But the U.S. Department of Energy has finally gotten around to updating its definition of “general service” light bulbs, and in 2020, will require much more efficient bulbs. Noah Horowitz, a program director at the NRDC, wrote in a blog post that this move will save U.S. consumers more than $10 billion on their bills, and reduce the country’s energy needs by the equivalent of 30 power plants.
Clearly, efficiency is the future, especially when it comes to your own bottom line. Even if future power plants use renewable solar or wind, the money to build them has to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is most likely your electricity bill.