No Freezing in the Dark or Drinking Warm Beer

Energy efficiency got a bad name at approximately the moment that a cardigan-wearing President Jimmy Carter gave a televised address to the nation in 1977 and told us all to turn down the thermostats. Ever since, the idea of using less energy has become equated in the public’s mind with sitting in the dark, freezing (or, in summer, broiling) and drinking warm beer—in short, going without.

But the nation’s leading organization of physicists is here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be this way, and that the nation can use less energy to achieve the same (or higher) standard of living and productivity.

In a new report, the American Physical Society points out that the United States—with 5% of world population—accounts for 20% of the planet’s annual energy consumption. We pay about $700,000 every minute to foreign countries for oil, and generate more than half of the electricity for our buildings from coal, the worst producer of CO2 emissions. But perhaps the strongest reason for energy efficiency—notice it is not energy conservation, although that would inevitably follow—is that it has worked in the past: in 1975, the first year of U.S. fuel economy standards for cars, the average car got 14 miles per gallon. That rose to 28 mpg for new cars and 22 mpg for new pickup trucks, minivans and SUVs by 1987. The vehicles still got where they were going, and people drove just as much (more, actually)—hence efficiency, not only conservation.

The physicists identify several fat targets for improving efficiency. Every 10% reduction in vehicle weight, which can be done through greater use of high-strength steel, aluminum and composite materials without compromising safety, produces a 6% to 7% increase in fuel economy. Buildings’ use of energy can be reduced 15% to 35% through more efficient insulation, windows and light; eliminating infiltration and duct leakage; upgrading furnaces, boiler and air conditioners; new power supplies that waste less electricity in stand-by or low-power modes; and energy-efficient appliances—all of which pay for themselves in lower utility bills. (Since 1975, Californians have saved more than $30 billion, $2,000 per household, in energy costs thanks to efficiency requirements: the energy needed to cool a new home has fallen by two-thirds, to 800 kWh per year, even though homes are 50% larger than in 1975.)

Specifically, the physicists say it is possible to increase the fuel economy of cars, SUVs and pickup trucks to at least 35 mpg by 2020 through improvements in internal combustion engines, transmissions, aerodynamics and other technologies. It is also possible to building residential zero energy buildings (ZEB), which use no fossil fuels, by 2020 (except in hot, humid climates). Most of the required technology, such as photovoltaics and solar heating, is available today.