Energy Efficiency: The Low-Hanging Fruit in Combatting Climate Change

by Andrew Grandahl

We all want clean energy sources to power our homes, businesses, and transportation. Thanks to the bold endeavors of companies and entrepreneurs who have battled through significant opposition, sustainable, scalable renewable energy is finally becoming a reality. But there is another half to this puzzle that is discussed far too little: energy efficiency. Energy efficiency has significant benefits on people's health, and can help save tremendous amounts of money for businesses, families and governments. But more importantly, it is a critical tool in reducing society’s carbon footprint and avoiding further damage to our climate.

The battle for renewable energy has been an uphill one. Historically, political and technical barriers have stood in the way of a carbon-neutral energy grid. Today, the tide is beginning to turn with the advent of powerful new businesses dead set on bringing us into a clean energy future. Sleek, fast electric cars are coming to market in greater quantities than ever before. Solar cells are increasing in their efficiency at a rapid pace. State governments in the U.S. are beginning to understand the economic benefits of installing renewable energy, regardless of their political affiliations. These are all very welcome developments, and are absolutely critical components of creating a planet that is sustainable now and for decades to come.

However, this transition still has many obstacles to overcome, and transforming the infrastructure of the developed world will take some time, to put it lightly. In the meantime, we are left with largely dirty, fossil fuel-powered systems in place, at least for the next several years before renewable energy provides the majority (or all) of our power. This leaves us with a real problem on our hands; we all want to decrease our carbon footprints, and we all want to do it now. We know that the climate is hurtling towards serious long-term volatility, and we know that putting more carbon into the atmosphere is increasingly costly to our environment. So what does one do as we wait for the future to arrive? The solution is energy efficiency. Renewable energy’s less sexy cousin, caught up in the shadow of the Teslas and the Hyperloops that seem to grab all the media attention. But energy efficiency (EE, as we’ll refer to it) is a crucial part of our goal to stabilize our climate and can save individuals and organizations truly massive amounts of money. Let’s take a look at the numbers.

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) recently published a comprehensive report on the impacts of EE. For the past several decades, the federal government and state legislators have been tightening regulations on efficiency that have helped create positive impacts. In 2015, energy-saving programs saved American households a whopping $840 on average, and prevented 490 million tons of CO2 from entering our atmosphere. Without EE efforts beginning in the 1990s and continuing into the present, the U.S. would have needed to install 313 additional large power plants to meet our energy needs. If U.S. agencies and businesses continue to push for EE, we would prevent the need for 800 new large power plants and prevent one billion tons of CO2 emissions annually by 2030. The numbers are huge, and have significant economic advantages for U.S. companies as well. The Natural Resource Defense Council has stated that America’s economic output has tripled over the last 40 years, while our energy consumption has only increased by a third. How was this achieved? Largely with energy efficiency.

Essentially, EE allows businesses to increase their productivity and decrease their running costs. It’s a win for the bottom line of a company, and simultaneously a win for the climate. Measures such as efficiency standards on appliances, strong building codes, and making sure homes and buildings are properly sealed and insulated can save huge amounts of money, while also creating jobs and inspiring new technologies. All of which once again proves that having a strong economy and caring for the environment are not mutually exclusive.

In addition to carbon and financial savings, EE can also have profound effects on human health and well-being. In a study published last Fall by the environmental group E4TheFuture, entitled Occupant Health Benefits of Residential Energy Efficiency, a compelling case is laid out for moving forward with EE for humanitarian reasons as well. The paper utilizes nearly a dozen studies done in the U.S. and Canada, which focus on the human impacts of EE upgrades in residential homes. The findings were compelling. Across the board, occupants of homes that received upgrades to their ventilation, appliances, heating or cooling systems, and insulation, were less likely to suffer from illnesses such as asthma, heart disease, and even cancer. The improvements to their homes also benefited their mental health by reducing stress.

Unfortunately, many people who live in lower income areas also live in homes that haven’t been upgraded in many decades. The lack of proper ventilation and insulation can allow humidity, temperature, and unwanted harmful compounds to fluctuate uncontrolled in the space where individuals spend the majority of their time. Radon and formaldehyde can accumulate if unchecked, and mold can proliferate and damage the respiratory systems of occupants of all ages. With the installation of an energy recovery ventilation unit (or ERV), the air in homes can be regulated, cleaned, and temperature controlled more easily, improving air quality and helping people save on their energy bills. Better insulation, ventilation, and high efficiency appliances can add to the quality of life for people who already have enough obstacles to overcome. For example, in Ireland, the Warmth and Wellbeing pilot program uses government funding to help those in need make their homes more energy efficient and better insulated. In the United States, the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) helps low-income families all over the country pay their energy bills. And better insulation helps to keep their homes air-tight and save even more money. Initiatives like these not only greatly improve the lives of low-income families, but also save carbon from entering the atmosphere through improved weatherization.

According to researchers from the Max Planck Institute in Germany, over three million people die each year globally from air pollution. As a human race, we owe it to ourselves to shift to clean energy, to clean our air, our soil and our water, and to respect this remarkable planet we all share. Measures like EE are essential in helping people financially, but more importantly, EE can save lives and help control our dangerous greenhouse gas emissions. We owe it to ourselves, our neighbors, and future generations to do everything we can to implement these measures. As the old proverb goes “A penny saved is a penny earned.” In this case, a dollar saved can mean a life saved as well.


Read some of the above mentioned studies here: