Energy Efficient: Lessons From the Northwest

by Andrew Grandahl

The Northwest United States is known for many things. Lush temperate rainforest and an omnipresent Pacific mist, progressive politics, and birthing rock and roll legends, to name a few. But over the last several decades, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana, have been quietly leading the way on something else that is deeply important and impactful: energy efficiency.

Though energy efficiency (we’ll refer to it as EE) is often overlooked by many, it is a wildly under-tapped resource for meeting a growing electricity demand while simultaneously decreasing emissions. Sounds too good to be true? It isn’t. If renewables like solar and wind and energy storage projects are half of the battle to a sustainable society, EE truly is the other half.

Through effective, comprehensive EE programs, the Pacific Northwest has been able to meet more than half of its growth in electricity demand since 1980. The Northwest Power and Conservation Council, Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance, Bonneville Power Administration, Energy Trust of Oregon, and multiple utility companies and energy organizations have collaborated for years to meet the efficiency targets of the NWCouncil’s regional power plants. Kickstarted with the passage of the Northwest Power Act in 1980, the region has continued to strive for new levels of efficiency on residential, commercial, and industrial levels.

The results? The PNW is emitting 23.5 million tons less CO2 per year than they would be without EE measures. That’s considerably more than the annual emissions of the state of Hawaii, or around the equivalent of pulling 5 million cars off of the road. And what about customer savings? According to the NWCouncil, in 2015 ratepayers saved around 4.06 billion dollars on their electricity bills. That’s around one-third of the Northwest’s total $12 billion annual electric bills.

Meeting over half of its electricity growth, pulling the equivalent of five million car’s pollution out of the atmosphere, and saving electricity consumers billions of dollars every year: that is the power of energy efficiency. While replacing incandescent bulbs with LEDs, sealing leaks in your home’s insulation, or updating to efficient appliances may not seem like a huge deal, the cumulative results when millions of people take these actions is truly staggering. When it comes to saving emissions, no action is “small” - every decision contributes to massive changes that help the environment and future generations.

As we’ve seen from the exemplary actions of these states, collaboration between governments, utilities companies, and homeowners combined with smart policies can drastically change our energy landscape. EE isn’t just a way to save energy; it is in and of itself a source of energy.

This definition was a key aspect of the Northwest Power Act almost 40 years ago, and has been continually emphasized by the NWCouncil and others throughout the years as updates have been made. Producing new energy infrastructure, whether it be conventional sources like oil and gas or renewables, is costly and resource-intensive. As the energy demands of the planet will continue to increase, we are going to need to continue to bring more electricity generation online, preferably through renewable sources. But equally valuable to more generation is the efficient use of the electricity that’s being generated. And at the end of the day, conserving a kilowatt hour (kWh) of energy through efficiency is the same as producing a kWh.

Think about it this way: if you made a concerted effort to be sure to use all the food you bought before it expired, to not buy more food than you could eat, and to freeze food you knew you couldn’t get to before it went bad, you would save a significant amount of money and food. This could be looked at as a type of “food efficiency”. You’d be saving money on your food budget, and you’d prevent it from ending up in landfills. Energy efficiency works in the exact same way. Every kWh saved is a kWh that doesn’t need to be produced and paid for down the line.

By shifting the fundamental idea behind energy efficiency from saving energy to creating more energy, the Northwest has made staggering progress in creating a more sustainable world while simultaneously saving massive amounts of money for consumers and governments. They have placed efficiency as a priority for meeting demand over any other energy source, and for good reason. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy released a study in 2009 citing EE as the cheapest energy source by a long shot, and since then, the numbers on the price of EE have held steady. Wind, solar and gas all come behind, ranging from 3 to 5 cents per kWh, according to the latest Lazard Levelized Cost of Energy study.

Though new, sustainable energy infrastructure will of course be needed with the future of growing energy demands, there is no reason to not accompany that with aggressive EE efforts across the country and around the world. It’s cost effective, it’s common sense, and it benefits both business and the environment. To the Pacific Northwest, we thank you for your leadership and look forward to a sustainable, efficient energy future.