Energy Bill: Like Finding Free Money

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If you saw $10 on the sidewalk, would you pick it up? Of course. And if doing so would help the economy and the environment, you might be even quicker.

A proposal before Congress offers businesses and consumers the chance to pocket the money, while creating jobs and helping ease global warming.

The proposal would set mandatory national goals for creating energy-efficiency programs to reduce the power we waste. It would strengthen the efforts states are already making to cut energy use. By 2020, the program would save Americans $168 billion, create over 220,000 jobs, and reduce global warming pollution by the equivalent of removing 48 million cars from the road, according to a study by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy.

The plan would require utilities to reduce electricity demand by 15 percent and natural gas demand by 10 percent over the next decade by helping their customers save energy. This is not a new idea: 19 states already have adopted similar strategies.

Americans are the most inefficient energy users in the world. Per capita, we use twice as much energy as the British, Germans, or Japanese. Virtually every study shows that we can become more efficient — and some states are already doing so. In California, efficiency measures have kept electricity demand nearly flat since the 1970s despite a 30 percent growth in population. The McKinsey Global Institute believes efficiency could cut global energy demand growth by at least half by 2020 if the necessary investments are made.

National Grid, an energy delivery company in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Rhode Island, has already seen the benefits of energy-saving programs. These programs over the past two decades have helped the company’s 5 million customers save upward of $3.8 billion by reducing energy use. They’ve also cut customers’ greenhouse gas emissions by an amount equal to the emissions from three coal-fired power plants.

A national efficiency standard would lead to bigger savings. In National’s Grid’s service area alone, it would save customers about $5.3 billion and create nearly 7,000 jobs by 2020. Nearly $1 billion of those cost savings and 1,200 of those new jobs would be in Massachusetts.

Opponents contend the standard is too prescriptive and would increase costs for utility companies, which in many states lose money when their customers save energy. This problem can easily be fixed by changing the way utilities get paid so that they no longer lose money when energy use is cut.

Implementing a national plan would require some effort — which means job creation.

We need workers to check old homes and buildings for energy leaks, and other workers to insulate and seal them. We need salesmen promoting efficient appliances, and plumbers replacing old furnaces with new, super-efficient ones. We need electricians to install meters that tell consumers how much energy they are using, and architects and construction crews to create new airtight buildings.

All of these jobs will come with cash savings to consumers and businesses through using — and paying for — less energy. What’s more, every dollar invested in energy efficiency is repaid many times over in savings. Programs that reduce energy use cost about 3 cents per kilowatt-hour saved. To provide that kilowatt-hour through coal or natural gas power plants would cost about 6 to 11 cents, and that’s not counting the costs of the pollution.

That’s why legislative leaders have called for a national Energy Efficiency Resource Standard.

Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts has introduced a House version of the plan, and New York Sen. Charles Schumer has put a similar version to the Senate. California Rep. Henry Waxman’s new climate bill also includes an efficiency standard.

There can be no clearer example of how our economic recovery can and should go hand-in-hand with helping ease the stress on our environment, and can save us money in the end.

It’s as obvious as money on the sidewalk.