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Clean technology may have been a political hot potato in 2011, but energy efficiency is becoming downright cool.
A major overhaul at the iconic Empire State Building helped raise the profile of energy efficiency. That project -- which included replacing 6,500 windows, adding insulation, upgrading lighting, and installing a digital wireless monitoring system -- is powering a 38 percent annual energy reduction and $4.4 million in annual savings.
Publicity surrounding the project -- from the likes of Presidents Clinton and Obama, not to mention major flogging by the companies and nonprofits involved with the $13 million project -- amounts to a towering achievement for energy efficiency, which has remained in the background, an unheralded hero, for years.
The Empire State Building wasn't the only aging star getting an energy makeover. Sixty-odd blocks downtown, the 104-year-old New York Stock Exchange building replaced more than 7,000 square feet of windows with super-insulating SeriousGlass. The windows were designed to increase the thermal performance by almost 60 percent and reduce solar heat gain by 40 percent compared to the original glass. Clearly, there's a bull market for saving energy.
Such initiatives are destined to grow, thanks in part to federal government efforts to promote building efficiency, along with other initiatives by US cities and states. But the impacts are limited to date. As our Energy Efficiency indicator shows, progress has slowed or reversed in the past couple years.
It's not just buildings. The federal government issued the first-ever efficiency standards for heavy-duty trucks and proposed new standards for passenger vehicles. The truck standard will reduce fuel use by up to 23 percent, depending on truck type, while the passenger vehicle standard should bring average new vehicle fuel economy to just under 50 miles per gallon by 2025. The feds also introduced new efficiency standards for appliances like residential refrigerators and air conditioners and furnaces.
The big question is whether consumers will join in. To date, individuals haven't found much appetite for efficiency measures, short of turning off switches or swapping out a few light bulbs -- if that.
But that's changing. Cool technologies are starting to make home energy efficiency more compelling, such as a smart thermostat from Nest Labs, created by one of the designers of Apple's iPod. Smartphone apps from companies as varied as ecobee and General Electric allow for near-real-time information about home energy use.
Facebook joined forces with Opower and the Natural Resources Defense Council to allow members to benchmark their home energy use against a national database of millions of homes, as well as with their friends. Best Buy announced plans to start carrying home energy management tools, and Pike Research predicted that worldwide users of home energy management systems will reach 63 million by 2020, up from just over 1 million in 2011.
Clearly, we are only at the beginning of a new era of energy efficiency, as continuous innovations in techno-wizardry make our homes, vehicles, office buildings, appliances, and devices increasingly efficient. The ability for anyone to get real-time, detailed information about their energy use portends a new democratization of energy among consumers. The question, of course, is whether all of this intelligence will actually smarten, and change, individual habits.