Deploying energy efficient technologies in the coal-gulping U.S. South would cut the region's projected electricity consumption over the next decade by 9 percent, a new report out of Georgia Tech finds.
"This would entirely offset the need to expand electricity generation capacity in the South through the year 2020," says the paper, a review of 19 studies published over the past dozen years.
Doing so would have implications for the whole nation.
The South census region, made up of the District of Columbia and 16 States, is a veritable energy hog. It accounts for 44 percent of the nation's energy consumption, considerably more than its population share of 37 percent.
Currently, more than three-quarters of its power comes from dirty conventional sources. The region is responsible for 37.8 percent of the nation's coal production and 41 percent of its global warming emissions.
The challenge for the South, say the researchers, is not only in its fossil fuel dependency, but in its exploding population. It's the largest and fastest growing region in the U.S., by far. The region's population shot up 20 percent in the last 10 years alone. These states are adding residents so fast that
"it is hard to imagine how continued rapid growth in energy demand can be accommodated," the report says.
Hard, but not impossible. While energy efficiency, the electricity we don't use, is often seen as the "invisible resource," its success as a pollution-free energy and economic solution for governments is well-documented, and indeed highly visible.
Take California. Since the 1970s, the amount of electricity per person across America surged 50 percent. Not so in the Golden State. There it stayed nearly level, thanks to aggressive measures to cut energy consumption.
In fact, according to a January report by the public policy group Next 10, 30 years of such efficiency policies created 1.5 million jobs with a total payroll of over $45 billion. The measures also saved California consumers over $56 billion on energy costs.
It's no secret the South could use an economic boost. Despite being fossil fuel rich, the region is financially challenged. These states account for only 33 percent of the nation's GDP and have the largest proportion of households living in poverty.
The fact is, smarter energy use could serve the whole nation faster than any other available low-carbon resource. Consulting firm McKinsey has crunched the numbers to prove it.
In a July report, the group concluded that for an investment of $520 billion, the U.S. could cut the country's projected energy consumption in 2020 by about 23 percent. That amount of up-front investment would save about $1.2 trillion in 10 years.
Offering more proof of the power of efficiency, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) found in a 2008 study that efficiency has already contributed more value to the U.S. economy than any other traditional energy resource, meeting 75 percent of all of the nation's new energy demands.
The results suggest that efficiency can make an even larger contribution — if the country chooses to develop it.
The good news for the U.S. South is that it has the greatest technical potential for efficiency of all the four census regions, according to the Electric Power Research Institute.
The bad news, according to the Georgia Tech study, is that
"The South has been one of the last regions in the country to embrace energy efficiency programs and to develop an energy-efficiency culture of consumer behavior."
"Per capita spending on electric utility energy efficiency programs in the Southeast is just one-fifth the national average," the authors said.
Despite being behind the curve, what the researchers are urging is not unrealistic.
On a business-as-usual track, electricity consumption is expected to grow at an annual rate of 0.84 percent between 2007 and 2020. That's not inevitable. With vigorous efficiency policies, the South could reduce its wasteful energy use by one percent per year, bringing energy use to below the region's present levels.
And the policies to get the job done are just sitting there for the taking by politicians: more stringent appliance and equipment standards; tighter and more enforceable building energy codes; stand-alone efficiency standards or more sweeping Renewable Portfolio Standards.
Begs the question: With all this low-hanging fruit, why not pick it?