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The Un-Coal

By investing in energy efficiency, we could vastly reduce carbon dioxide emissions and save money.

There is a low-tech way to sequester carbon dioxide: don’t dig up so much coal and oil in the first place. Princeton University’s Carbon Mitigation Initiative concludes that using the most efficient building technologies for commercial and residential buildings could avert as much carbon dioxide as is produced by 800 one-gigawatt coal power plants. Doubling automotive efficiency – possible with existing technology – would achieve the same. Do both and you’ve canceled out the emissions of 1,600 coal power plants – more than all the coal plants proposed globally today.

Clearly, even partial deployment would yield enormous benefits. So what’s the problem? “The classic reason why efficiency didn’t fare well [is that] it took five guys in a corporate boardroom to spend a couple billion bucks to build a power plant that can power 250,000 homes,” says Steve Selkowitz, who manages building-efficiency research programs at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, CA. “Getting 250,000 homeowners to each change 10 light bulbs and buy a more efficient refrigerator and air conditioner takes much more effort.”

And right now, federal policy mostly helps the five guys in the boardroom. Consider federal tax credits and funding for energy-related activities: according to the Alliance to Save Energy, an energy-efficiency organization, most energy tax breaks go to efforts to bolster energy supply, primarily fossil fuels. Only 14 percent go to efforts to increase efficiency and reduce consumption, even though the benefits would be the same or better in terms of cost, and the measures would prevent – rather than add to – carbon dioxide and other emissions.

Consider what’s possible with lighting alone. Half of U.S. electricity comes from coal. Two-thirds of U.S. electricity is consumed in commercial and residential buildings. In commercial buildings, 35 percent of electricity goes to lighting (the figure is 20 percent for homes). Selkowitz says that with an aggressive effort, lighting consumption in commercial buildings could readily be cut – by half – through better designs, more-efficient light sources, and smart sensor and control systems. That strategy alone, fully deployed, would replace 40 one-gigawatt coal plants.


But are efficiency investments really cost effective? A 2001 National Academies study found that just three small U.S. Energy Department-funded R&D programs that produced technologies now widely deployed – electronic ballasts for fluorescent lamps, efficient refrigerator compressors, and low-emissivity (low-E) coatings for windows – have achieved cumulative energy savings of $30 billion. Despite this lesson – to say nothing of the climate-change issue – the White House wants to cut efficiency efforts further. In its proposed fiscal 2007 budget, research at the Energy Department’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy office would get $517 million, down $112 million. Efficiency incentives would get trimmed, too.

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