By Jonathan Marshall
Americans managed to do more with less last year. In particular, the U.S. economy grew 1.7 percent in 2011 while using 0.7 percent less energy.
The energy-use estimate comes from a new report issued by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. It highlights the fact that Americans shifted to more energy-efficient technologies, particularly in the transportation, commercial and residential sectors of the economy.
Just as praiseworthy, the mix of energy shifted in favor of cleaner and more renewable sources. Wind energy jumped a remarkable 27 percent over 2010, as new wind farms began production. Hydroelectric power surged 26 percent over the same period thanks to higher-than-normal precipitation in the Western United States.
At the same time, the use of coal fell substantially, while cleaner natural gas gained ground thanks to falling gas prices.
All this bodes well for the country’s carbon footprint, which has grown significantly since 1990. U.S. greenhouse gas emissions jumped 3.2 percent from 2009 to 2010 as the economy began recovering from the deep recession that struck in 2008.
Now, however, experts at Resources for the Future are predicting that the United States might actually achieve President Obama’s goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020—despite the stalled debate in Washington over climate change.
Several factors account for their rosy scenario: the continued substitution of cleaner and cheaper natural gas for coal; state mandates to use more renewable energy; California’s tough AB32 law; higher vehicle fuel-economy standards; and stricter federal regulation of new coal-fired power plants.
Further progress, they warn, will likely require some kind of price on carbon emissions, such as a carbon tax or cap-and-trade market.
Meanwhile, an international team of scientists, writing in the latest issue of Nature Climate Change, call for much greater public focus on improving energy efficiency before investing vast sums on new energy supply technologies. They point out that total R&D spending by public agencies on energy efficiency since 1974 came to less than the spending on nuclear fusion—a technology that has never produced a single kilowatt-hour of usable energy.
Said co-author Dr. Charlie Wilson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the United Kingdom, “The multitude of small-scale innovations that improve end-use efficiency often go unnoticed because they don’t have the glamor of solar panels and wind turbines, and they don’t benefit from the well-established institutions, powerful market interests, and political influence that support supply technologies such as fossil fuels, nuclear, and wind and solar power. Yet end-use efficiency innovations have more potential and provide higher social returns on investments.”
Email Jonathan Marshall at Jonathan.Marshall@pge.com.