Why We Can’t Efficiency Our Way to Zero

Meeting our national and regional climate goals requires a transformation of our energy systems. The old playbook of energy efficiency can’t be the answer for rapid decarbonization required by the end of the decade. Learn why and find out what you can do to help reach our goals.

Energy efficiency may reduce lines at the pump, but doesn’t address the root of the problem. Unlike these guys, we don’t have any time to wait!

The 1973 Arab oil embargo caused widespread oil shortages, exposing the frailty of a global economy dependent on fossil fuels. As a result, American politicians found themselves bombarded by angry constituents left stranded at the pump.

Pressured to act, Congress sprung into action and created the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. The bold move set a fuel efficiency floor for automakers to sell new cars in the United States.

Tired of staring at a screen? Don’t feel like reading the entire article? Take a break, close your eyes and listen to my soothing voice to lull you into action!

The prevailing wisdom from the ’70s told us that improving energy efficiency standards reduces dependency on foreign energy. CAFE standards have saved American drivers billions of dollars in fuel costs. But the US energy policy playbook hasn’t changed much in 50 years. The methodology is simple: Step 1) Incrementally raise energy efficiency standards. Step 2) Hope for the best.

Same Playbook, New Game

Five decades later, we find ourselves amidst a new energy emergency: a climate crisis accelerated by the same fossil fuel addiction. While our appliances and vehicles are nominally more efficient than they were in 1975, our homes, businesses, and transportation remain dangerously dependent on carbon-spewing petrochemicals.

This time, the problem isn’t being stranded at the pump. It’s getting stranded on a warming planet.

The playbook that assuaged constituents in the ’70s wasn’t designed to solve today’s issues. While energy conservation initiatives like CAFE standards can lead to greenhouse gas reductions, energy efficiency can’t spur the type of transformation our energy system needs.

As a fellow engineer, energy nerd, and my admitted man-crush Saul Griffith quips, “We can’t efficiency our way out of the climate crisis.”

Calls from the Top

The Biden administration reentered the US to the Paris Accords and committed the US to an “economy-wide 50 percent reduction in net greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution by 2030”, compared to 2005 levels. The EU is calling for a 55% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030.

Calls to curb GHG’s don’t stop at the global or national level. States are also making a splash. California committed to sourcing its electricity from 100% renewable energy and zero-carbon sources by 2045. Just this week, the governor asked state regulators to explore the feasibility of reaching carbon neutrality by 2035.

But California has a long way to go achieve carbon neutrality. Before we explain why energy efficiency can’t get us there, where are we today?

Grid Gracious

Electricity generation is a significant contributor to carbon emissions. For example, Californians consumed 217 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity in 2020. That’s an average of 5,504 kWh of electricity per resident, or enough electricity for every man, woman, and child to run a hairdryer 24/7 for over seven months. And that’s only electricity. In California.

When we factor in heating and transportation, the average US citizen consumed 80,000 kWh of energy in 2019! The vast majority of that energy came from fossil fuels.

Source: Our World in Data – Per Capita Energy Consumption, US

Despite our best efficiency efforts, Americans’ per capita energy consumption remained flat over the last decade. Reducing energy demand through efficiency isn’t happening at the requisite scale. Instead, we should focus efforts to clean up our energy supply. So, how clean is it right now?

Fortunate Sun

Last year, California generated 28% of its electricity from renewable sources, according to CAISO, the state’s electric grid operator. However, covering the Golden State’s remaining 72% of electricity generated from fossil-fuel sources released 60 million metric tons of greenhouse gases in 2020. That’s equal to 3,307 pounds of greenhouse gases (GHG) for each of California’s 40 million residents.

The share of carbon emissions attributed to the 28% share of renewables, you ask? Zero.

The problem is that energy efficiency doesn’t address the root of our emissions problem – fossil fuels. Less source pollution is still pollution. Even the most efficient natural gas plants can’t have a place in a decarbonized electric grid. It’s thermodynamically impossible.

The path to reaching the US and California’s GHG reduction targets requires the rapid deployment of renewable energy. So how much do we need?

A California Energy Commission report found the state needs to triple its solar and wind build rates and octle its energy storage build rates over the next decade to reach CA’s clean energy goals. Octle is my attempt to create a word for an 8-fold increase. Pretty good, huh?

Welcome to Electric Avenue

Deploying more renewables and storage for a cleaner, more resilient electric grid is one piece of the puzzle. The other challenging bit requires a rapid transition away from fossil fuels in our homes and businesses.

Taking a note from the US’s efficiency playbook, electrification, or replacing fossil fuel appliances with electric equivalents, eliminates more than two-thirds of the energy supply. Talk about efficiency!

That’s because electric vehicles need 1/3 of the energy of internal combustion vehicles. Heat pumps consume about 1/3 of the energy of fossil-fuel heating sources to serve the same heating and cooling load. It turns out electrification is also the best form of energy efficiency.

Electrification doesn’t force Americans to change their lifestyle. We’re heating the same buildings and driving the same cars. It’s just using cleaner, less expensive, super-efficient electric versions. And in most cases, electrification saves Americans money, too.

Transitioning to 100% clean energy sources won’t only support US goals and exhibit our global climate leadership. It’s also good for our economy. Investing in clean energy infrastructure also puts money back in American’s pockets, creates good-paying jobs people want, and creates cleaner air in our communities.

What Are You Gonna Do?

We need everyone in this fight, and the time to act is now. Local action requires local voices supporting policies promoting adopting renewable energy sources. In my hometown of San Diego, Community Choice Aggregator (CCA) San Diego Community Power offers electric customers access to 100% renewable energy. If you’re not already served by a CCA then petition your elected officials! Let them know you want to live in a community powered by clean, renewable energy.

If you have the resources, transition your home, business, and transportation away from fossil fuels. Replace gas-powered appliances with electric heat pumps for space and water heating. Drive an electric vehicle. Invest in solar and storage. Like nearly everyone who goes electric, you may be surprised to learn what you’re missing.

So why wait for the next crisis to whip us into action? Let’s get proactive and recognize that meeting tomorrow’s climate goals starts with today’s decisions.

It’s time to transition our energy system to a future powered by clean, abundant renewable energy. A long-term strategy solely dependant on energy efficiency will only leave us stranded at the pump.

Are you considering investing in solar and storage for your business? Solutions in Sustainability helps clients develop and implement technological solutions to reduce corporate GHG emissions. Contact Solutions in Sustainability to learn how renewable energy can help you meet your long-term goals today.

Can’t get enough?

Check out more topics in the Solutions in Sustainability Blog: Solar Photovoltaics, Battery Storage, and Electric Vehicles.

About the Author

Alex Kaufman is a science communicator, clean energy specialist, sustainability nerd, professional engineer, travel enthusiast, and resident of San Diego, California. When not helping clients, you can usually find him cycling, hiking, reading, spending time with loved ones, or planning the next big adventure. He is open to speaking engagements. Contact him at alex@alexkaufmanpe.com.

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