How did China and India beat the U.S. on energy efficiency?

How did China and India beat the U.S. on energy efficiency?

Wind turbine image by Ivan Kruk via Shutterstock

A new international energy efficiency ranking by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy places the United States at a lowly 13 out of 16 leading world economies.

There are many reasons to bemoan the finding. The United States is throwing away a lot of economic opportunity.

Energy is a basic economic input. Using more where less suffices is like paying two workers for a job easily done by one.

“Energy efficiency means using less energy to accomplish the same or better results,” said Rachel Young, ACEEE research analyst and the report’s lead author, during a July news conference. “Using less energy to do more means nations preserve valuable natural resources and can build, transport and grow at a lower cost than countries that waste their energy resources.”

China does better

Despite its iconic images of people wearing masks in polluted cities, China bested the United States. So did India, where the grid functions erratically. In fact, all major economies outperformed the United States except for Russia, Brazil and Mexico. Germany topped the list, followed by Italy, the European Union, China and France.

“Stagnation and inaction” characterizes the U.S. energy efficiency scene, Young said.

True, the United States has improved with appliance standards, government/industry initiatives, and recent fuel economy standards. “However, the overall story is disappointing,” she said.

Since the ACEEE’s last international energy efficiency ranking two years ago, the U.S. “has progressed slowly and has made limited improvement,” she said. “In contrast, Germany, China and Canada are pulling ahead.”

It’s odd that the United States performed so poorly, given that it is home to innovation centers such as Silicon Valley that are developing impressive energy efficiency technologies. Plus, the U.S. has a president who clearly champions energy efficiency more than his predecessors.

So what’s the problem?

Energy efficiency efforts are scattered throughout the U.S. It is largely a local play, with some states aggressive in their pursuit and others negligent. The federal government could create a focal point for achievement, but Congress has done nothing significant on energy efficiency for a long time.

“We need policy from Congress to help folks back home, help companies back home, get a focus on the benefits of less is more,” said U.S. Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont.

Welch sponsored legislation to create a national energy efficiency target. He also supports stronger national building codes and education for industry. the U.S. needs more emphasis on energy efficiency in federal transportation planning too, according to Welsh.

“These are all things that are going to make us money,” he said.

Here are some interesting statistics from the report that shed more light on the United States' lowly international energy efficiency ranking.

  • The United States is one of only two countries with no national energy-savings or greenhouse gas reduction plan.
  • Since ACEEE’s last international energy efficiency ranking, R&D in energy efficiency has declined.
  • The U.S. uses less combined heat and power (CHP) than many other countries.
  • In transportation, the U.S. ranked second to lowest. This is because of its poor fuel economy and the high number of miles traveled per vehicle. the U.S. also has scant mass transit compared with many other major economies.

It’s not all bad news; the U.S. did pretty well in some categories. Even though there is no national mandate, states have imposed stringent building codes. And the EnergyGuide and Energy Star labels offer best practices to the world market for voluntary appliance and equipment standards.

But how is it possible that China, with its heavily polluted cities, beat the United States?

“Pollution and energy are related, but they are not the same thing,” said Steve Nadel, ACEEE’s executive director. “While China has more efficient cars, for example, the U.S. cars are much cleaner. The U.S. has much stronger emissions standards on cars, likewise on fixed sources. Also China uses far more energy from coal.”

Energy efficiency may help China reduce pollution, “but absent cleaning up their power plants and cars a lot more, their air is not going to improve,” Nadel added.

In the United States, however, the reverse is true. Efforts to clean up the air, carbon dioxide in particular, could lead to greater energy efficiency. The Environmental Protection Agency in June released a draft proposal to reduce carbon dioxide from existing power plants. Energy efficiency is seen as the least cost way to meet the standard. So if the proposal is finalized as it is now conceived, America could see a significant boost in energy efficiency projects.

But that won’t happen any time soon. It will be about another year before the EPA plan is finalized. After that the states must file plans to show how they’ll comply. That should take another year. Lawsuits also could cause delay. So for now, absent action by Congress, the U.S. may continue to "spend" more energy than it needs to get the job done.

Download the ACEEE 2014 International Energy Efficiency Scorecard here.

This article originally appeared at Energy Efficiency Markets. Learn more about new energy systems at VERGE SF 2014, Oct. 27 to 30. Top image by Ivan Kruk via Shutterstock