At current levels of consumption the American economy is perhaps 14 percent energy efficient – which means the U.S. wastes about 86 percent of the energy now burned to maintain its economy (Laitner 2012 building on Ayres and Warr 2009). That level of waste imposes a huge array of costs which constrain the larger productivity of its economy. And among those wastes are the very large quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions that we dump into our environment. Yes, we may significantly reduce CO2 emissions through post-waste cleanup as in the use of carbon capture and sequestration technologies. And we may avoid other emissions with the use of nuclear and large-scale renewable energy technologies. However, a productive and sustainable future – one that also ensures a greater level of job creation – will require a large reduction in both the cost of energy and the full cost of energy services. This can be done at scale only with very large energy efficiency upgrades.
At the same time there is good news. The emerging evidence suggests that the U.S. has an untapped cost-effective energy efficiency potential roughly equivalent to 250 billion barrels of oil (Laitner et al. 2012). That is a sufficient resource that would enable the U.S. to reduce total energy needs by about one-half compared to standard reference case projections for the year 2050. But to produce that magnitude of efficiency improvement requires, in turn, hefty increases in more productive investment – substantial upgrades in our devices, systems and infrastructure, and all enabled by a shift in our behaviors, our social institutions and our culture. Neither the market nor the public can get it done on their own. Only through greater collaborative efforts might we ensure our ongoing productivity and social prosperity.
Ayres, Robert U. and Benjamin Warr. 2009. The Economic Growth Engine: How Energy and Work Drive Material Prosperity. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing, Inc.
John A. "Skip" Laitner. 2012. "The Link Between Energy Efficiency, Useful Work, and a Robust Economy," in John Byrne and Yang-doo Wang (editors), Secure and Green Energy Economies(forthcoming).
John A. "Skip" Laitner, Steven Nadel, Harvey Sachs, R. Neal Elliott, Siddiq Khan The Long-Term Energy Efficiency Potential: What the Evidence Suggests, by, ACEEE Research Report E104, Washington, DC: American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. 2012.