By Jonathan Marshall
The cleanest energy doesn’t come from solar, wind, or hydro power—but from smart investments that let you use less energy to do the same or better job. In many cases it’s also cheaper to buy “negawatts” through energy efficiency upgrades than “megawatts” of fossil or renewable energy.
A new report by the California Public Utilities Commission provides hard numbers supporting the state’s continuing commitment to energy efficiency, a policy that harkens back to the era of high oil prices in the mid-1970s.
Energy efficiency programs administered by PG&E and other major investor-owned utilities in California helped customers save an estimated 5,900,000 megawatt hours (MWh) of electricity consumption in 2010-11, enough to meet the needs of more than 600,000 households for a year. The programs also eliminated the need for about three major power plants’ worth of generation capacity, the report says.
Besides saving money, these investments also are helping to save the environment and meet the state’s aggressive greenhouse gas reduction goals. The utility programs cut an estimated 3.8 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions, equivalent to taking more than 700,000 cars off the roads.
These energy savings don’t come free, of course. The state’s full three-year program cycle from 2010-2012 for all the investor-owned utilities is budgeted at $3.1 billion. But every dollar invested in energy efficiency reaps about two dollars in total benefits, according to the best current estimates. That’s an impressive return by any test.
On the electric side, PG&E exceeded its goals by a wide margin, achieving estimated savings of 2,376,000 MWh from 2010-11 (not including savings from Codes and Standards and low-income programs). It also cut demand for natural gas by an estimated 53 million therms, about half the total achieved statewide. And its programs helped reduce CO2 emissions by more than 1.6 million tons. (These estimates have not yet been fully validated.)
The biggest electric savings (50 percent) came from the commercial sector, followed by residential customers (38 percent). Lighting upgrades accounted for a majority of estimated electric savings, with smaller but still significant improvements from process improvements, HVAC, refrigeration, and plug loads.
In a filing with the CPUC this summer, PG&E proposed continuing its energy efficiency programs, with innovations to make them more effective, at a cost of about $430 million a year through 2014.
Since 1976, PG&E’s programs have avoided the release of more than 180 million metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. The California Energy Commission estimates that the state’s efficiency standards have saved California customers $66 billion in electricity and natural gas costs since 1975. And a 2008 analysis from the University of California estimated that savings from the state’s efficiency programs helped generate about 1.5 million full-time equivalent jobs through 2006.
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