We’re going to be hearing a lot about climate change this week—and a lot about the big issue being discussed in Copenhagen: reducing greenhouse gas emissions. From this, we’ll likely start hearing more about the big solutions to achieve our environmental goals, like alternative energy and more fuel-efficient cars. Unfortunately, solar panels and hybrid/electric vehicles won’t make much of an impact on reducing greenhouse gases and climate changes for years or decades.
What we should be hearing much more about is the one thing most experts recognize as the cheapest, easiest and most effective way to fight climate change today: energy efficiency. And regardless of what transpires in Copenhagen this week or in Washington during a debate on climate change legislation, energy efficiency will become even more important.
We should not forget that in the United States, 72 percent of our energy is used by homes and buildings, and 40 percent of our energy is consumed by our homes. Electricity generation is the big culprit, providing 40 percent of our greenhouse gases, thanks largely to our reliance on coal-fired power plants.
Solar and wind power will not take the lead in electricity generation for decades. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t support these technologies, but they are long-term solutions that require massive investments and commitments—for both the power grid and for home and business owners. A truly effective strategy for reducing greenhouse gases must also include short-term solutions. And the only effective short-term solution we have is to improve our energy efficiency.
The first day of talks in Copenhagen called for urgent action on climate change. And while reaching an agreement among rich and developing nations is essential, it does not do the truly urgent work of reducing our impact on the environment. For now, that can only come from energy efficiency.
Energy efficiency is not just a short-term solution, either. As energy efficiencies in our products improve and more innovations are introduced, our savings in electricity generation should accelerate. This will be needed, because our demand for electricity is expected to accelerate as well. And this makes energy efficiency even more paramount.
The good news is that we can make significant strides in energy efficiency today just be picking the low-hanging fruit. And there is plenty of it. Energy efficiencies in TVs, for example, have improved greatly just with voluntary Energy Star programs, more efficient LCD screens, and other improvements. Add ambient light sensing, automatic shut off and forced menus to put TVs into more energy efficient modes, and our energy savings will continue to increase. In the coming months and years we’ll see big strides in energy monitoring systems that can save homeowners 10 percent to 20 percent in energy costs. We’ll see better networking and Ethernet technologies for connected computers. We’ll see more and more efficient LED (light emitting diodes) for home and business lighting. And this is just the beginning. Imagine what home automation systems combined with energy monitors can save for homeowners. We’re already seeing products that provide automatic shutoffs for curtailing vampire power used by idle electronics. Many other innovations that will improve our energy efficiencies—while making our lives easier—are bound to happen.
As author Jared Diamond wrote in Sunday’s New York Times, “so much of our consumption is wasteful and doesn’t contribute to our quality of life.” In other words, there are many ways we can save without sacrificing our standard of living.
That sentiment was echoed on Monday by Times columnist and Nobel laureate for economics Paul Krugman:
As a recent study by McKinsey & Company showed, there are many ways to reduce emissions at relatively low cost: improved insulation; more efficient appliances; more fuel-efficient cars and trucks; greater use of solar, wind and nuclear power; and much, much more. And you can be sure that given the right incentives, people would find many tricks the study missed.
Energy efficiency isn’t a magic bullet, of course. It should be one part of the solution. And combined with electronics and technology, it can be a very big part of the solution. Some energy efficiency measures like demand response being touted for a smart grid system in the United States are referred to as a fifth fuel, producing negawatts instead of megawatts.
But don’t be discouraged if you don’t hear much about energy efficiency during the talks in Copenhagen or during the fight over a climate bill in the U.S. Congress. That’s because longer-term solutions like solar panels, wind turbines and hybrid/electric cars are sexier symbols of going green.
Meanwhile, energy efficiency in our homes and buildings will prove to be the best and most effective way to combat climate change. And today’s technology can only help it.