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Efficiency Works: U.S. Energy Intensity Down 50 Percent From 1980

July 28, 2015
Energy efficiency alone saved U.S. consumers and businesses about $800 billion in 2014, roughly $2,500 per capita.

Energy efficiency has made major strides in the United States over the last 35 years, with "energy intensity"—the measurement of energy used per dollar of gross domestic product (GDP)—down from 12.1 thousand Btu per dollar in 1980 to 6.1 thousand Btu per dollar in 2014, a new report from the nonprofit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) reveals.

The ACEEE found that about 60 percent of the improvement in energy intensity over the last 35 years can be attributed to energy efficiency and about 40 percent to major structural changes in the economy. The bottom line: Energy efficiency alone saved U.S. consumers and businesses about $800 billion in 2014, roughly $2,500 per capita. Even though U.S. energy use rose by 26 percent from 1980 to 2014, the U.S. GDP increased by 149 percent.

Issued to mark the ACEEE's 35th anniversary, "Energy Efficiency in the U.S.: 35 Years and Counting" also looks ahead, concluding that, "While much progress has been made, there are large and cost-effective energy-efficiency opportunities that, by 2050, can collectively reduce energy use by 40 to 60 percent relative to current forecasts."

Examples of energy-efficiency advances since 1980 cited in the report include:

  • A more-than-70-percent decline in the energy use of new clothes washers.
  • A nearly 20-percent decline in the energy use per square foot of new homes.
  • A nearly 40-percent decline in industrial energy use per unit value of product.
  • A more-than-25-percent increase in the fuel economy of passenger vehicles.
  • A more-than-25-percent decline in energy losses in the U.S. electric transmission and distribution system.

"Energy efficiency has made great strides in the past 35 years, and we have learned many important lessons on how markets and policies can work together to advance it,” report co-author and ACEEE Executive Director Steven Nadel said. “Looking forward, we find opportunities to reduce 2050 energy use by half relative to a business-as-usual reference case. In order to harvest these large efficiency opportunities, we need to take our efforts to a higher level. The challenges are many, but so are the benefits in terms of lower energy bills, a stronger economy, improved energy security, and a cleaner environment. The past has shown us what efficiency can do, and it can guide us to even greater success in the future."

The report notes: "Efficiency investments and savings also generate jobs, including direct jobs installing efficiency measures, indirect jobs upstream in the supply chain, and jobs induced as energy-bill savings are spent elsewhere and multiply through the economy. Energy savings can also help to drive modest overall growth in the U.S. economy. ... Further, energy-efficiency savings over the past 35 years have contributed to our nation's security and improved our environment. ... Reductions in energy consumption also mean reduced emissions of fuel-combustion byproducts, including sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides (contributors to acid rain and smog), mercury and other toxic metals (contributors to health problems), and carbon dioxide (the predominant greenhouse gas)."

To achieve even deeper energy-efficiency advances over the next 35 years, the report recommends:

  • Better systems integration, including through "intelligent efficiency" (i.e., the use of sensors, controls, big data, and computer chips to monitor and control energy use in real time).
  • Improvements to the many types of equipment (such as computers, televisions, and elevators) that collectively account for growing miscellaneous energy loads.
  • Evolution of building design to yield zero-net-energy and ultralow-energy buildings.
  • Industrial-process improvements.
  • Increased use of advanced vehicles, including electric, hybrid, and self-driving vehicles.
  • Taking building energy retrofits to a much higher level, including more widespread and deeper retrofits for larger savings per building.
  • Better efficiency of the electric grid through expanded use of combined-heat-and-power systems, greater power-plant efficiency, reduced transmission and distribution losses, expanded use of other distributed-generation resources, and improved grid control and integration.
  • Promotion of sustainable development and transportation patterns.
  • Initiatives to change wasteful energy-using behaviors among consumers and businesses.

The report is available at http://aceee.org/research-report/e1502.