Three Simple Checkpoints on the Road to a Clean Energy Future

Rocky Mountain Institute

Three Simple Checkpoints on the Road to a Clean Energy Future

The debate about moving to a clean energy economy is over. The question is, how long will it take?

Some, like the recent Wall Street Journal article "The Long Road to an Alternative-Energy Future" by Michael Totty, posit "we shouldn't expect" clean technologies to significantly dent fossil fuel use anytime soon.

But while Rocky Mountain Institute agrees that new energy innovations in solar, wind and electric vehicles may take years to overtake existing products or technologies, there are several ways to make the road a bit shorter.

Efficiency: America's Greatest Untapped Opportunity

Totty noted that the sheer size of the energy market is a major reason for the clean energy delay. Yet efficiency measures greatly decrease the total size of the market and help ensure that the contribution of alternatives is more significant.

The challenge of supply cannot be tackled without considering demand-side solutions, and energy efficiency is the critical resource in the portfolio of energy solutions.

{related_content}Researchers at RMI identified several near-term efficiency advantages in "Assessing the Electric Productivity Gap and U.S. Efficiency Opportunity."

According to the report, electric productivity (measured in dollars of gross domestic product divided by kilowatt-hours consumed) varies dramatically from state to state. If lower-performing states could achieve the electric productivity of top performers through energy efficiency, the U.S. has the potential to save 1.2 million gigawatt-hours -- equal to displacing over 60 percent of America's coal-fired generation.

Most importantly, this is possible through technologies available today. The efficiency gap can be closed using a broad range of strategies and solutions that are already being implemented -- just not to their full potential.

"Taking lessons from efficient states will facilitate adoption and prevent them from sinking resources into reinventing the wheel," said Natalie Mims, a senior consultant with RMI's energy practice. "Not only is there high efficiency potential in many places, but there are large economic benefits to be had as well."

A recent McKinsey & Company study, "Unlocking Energy Efficiency in the U.S. Economy," offers a glimpse of the economic potential of efficiency, and what it means for the future of low-carbon energy technologies.

If executed at scale, a comprehensive approach to U.S. efficiency would yield energy savings worth more than $1.2 trillion, reduce end-use energy consumption in 2020 by 23 percent, and potentially abate up to 1.1 gigatons of greenhouse gases annually. That level of reduction is the equivalent of taking the entire U.S. fleet of passenger vehicles and light trucks off the roads.

McKinsey contends that, while we continue to develop new sources of clean energy, efficiency's compelling economic benefits should not be ignored as an important resource that can help meet future energy needs. In short, efficiency represents our best emission-free energy resource.

While some remain focused on the supply side and wait for the "silver buckshot" of new clean energy technologies, forward-thinking companies are embracing the demand side opportunity and are seeing efficiency opportunities translate into practice and profits.

Empire State Building: A Model Retrofit

The greatest capability for energy efficiency savings is in the buildings sector, which accounted for about 70 percent of U.S. electricity consumption in 2007, the same year that the owners of the Empire State Building decided to move forward with a new capital improvement plan.

In April of 2009, the Empire State Building Company announced a $550 million renovation incorporating a comprehensive energy efficiency retrofit designed by RMI and partners Jones Lang LaSalle, Johnson Controls, and the Clinton Climate Initiative. The retrofit design is expected to save 38 percent of the building's energy and reduce carbon emissions by approximately 105,000 metric tons over fifteen years.

The project, which includes refurbished windows, high-efficiency heating and cooling systems, improved insulation, better ventilation control and a tenant energy management system, should save the owners $4.4 million annually and pay for itself in less than five years.

While the environmental and economic benefits have been widely showcased, other advantages -- such as the replicable integrative design process and the increased demand for innovative energy-saving technologies -- are also gaining attention.

Southwall Technologies Inc. will provide their Heat Mirror film technology to boost the efficiency of the building's 6,500 windows. Serious Materials will remove, disassemble and rebuild the windows on-site, and refurbish them in a 'micro-factory' on the building's ninth floor.

By raising the profile of deep energy retrofits and providing a blueprint to inspire other building owners to conduct their own retrofits, the built environment's reliance on electricity production will be dramatically reduced.

Lightweighting: A Barrier Buster for Electric Vehicles

Similar efficiency opportunities are currently being captured in the transportation sector.

Many of the barriers holding back electric vehicles -- namely cost, battery size, range and charging infrastructure -- can be overcome by lightweighting, or reducing vehicle weight to increase efficiency.

Bennett Cohen, an RMI analyst, said that traditional automakers should focus on a key enabler that addresses all barriers to widespread electrification of the U.S. auto fleet.

"The conception was to put a battery in a car that was designed for an internal combustion engine," Cohen said. "When everyone is burning cheap gas, it's harder to make the case that you need to redesign the entire car to make it more efficient. Now that we are looking at a vehicle powered by an expensive battery, and one that takes a long time to charge, it is time to make more advanced, light and aerodynamic vehicles to make electrification practical and economic."

Light, yet strong materials that potentially halve the weight of a traditional passenger vehicle allow the battery to be downsized and/or extend its range. Advanced materials such as aluminum and carbon fiber composites offer superior strength and stiffness per pound to milled steel, the dominant material used in cars today.

RMI spinoff Bright Automotive made news recently with the IDEA, an electric fleet vehicle that achieves 100+ mpg by maximizing efficiency with aerodynamic design, lightweighting and plug-in hybrid vehicle technology. Instead of retrofitting outdated heavy frames and chassis, the company designed from the ground up to integrate parts, improved systems to work with fewer components, and replaced steel with lighter and stronger materials.

This vehicle is not a pipe dream -- Bright Automotive recently inked a contract with the U.S. Postal Service to develop and test an electric postal delivery vehicle.

"Efficiency makes sense no matter what kind of car," Cohen said. "The cost-reduction is so compelling from both an automaker and consumer perspective. What Bright is doing will show how cost and range anxiety can be mitigated with a vehicle that is designed better. It is truly the key to unlocking electrification for the masses."

A variety of technologies, existing or yet-to-be-discovered, can work in tandem with good efficiency designs to reduce energy needs at a large scale.

The true road to an alternative energy future keeps sight of the big energy picture, but also uses information to deploy clever combinations of solutions we already have to drive change.

And that makes the road seem not so long after all.

Kelly Vaughn is an analyst with RMI's Communications Department where she focuses on communications strategy and initiative development. She has her MA in Communications from University of Dubuque and extensive experience in social marketing and PR.

Empire State Building image CC-licensed by Flickr user Tony the Misfit.