Johnson Controls-USEA Forum Underscores the Urgency of Energy Efficiency

Johnson Controls-USEA Forum Underscores the Urgency of Energy Efficiency's Senior Writer Marc Gunther is blogging from the 20th annual Energy Efficiency Forum in Washington, D.C., an event sponsored by Johnson Controls and the United States Energy Association. Here are some highlights:

No Shortage of Brainpower at DOE

Energy Secretary Steven Chu has gotten a lot of attention because he's the first cabinet member ever to have a Nobel Prize, but his deputy Kristina Johnson is no slouch, to say the least.

She's a Stanford Ph.D. in engineering, a winner of the John Fritz Medal (widely considered the highest award in the engineering profession), the former dean of engineering at Duke, the holder of 129 U.S. and foreign patents or patents pending, a co-founder of several startups in the field of photonics and microdisplays. She made her first public appearance at the Energy Efficiency Forum, focusing on the "how" of getting change accomplished more than the "what."
DOE Undersecretary Kristina Johnson Energy Efficiency Forum
Johnson laid out three principles that will guide her work as undersecretary for energy at the Department of Energy.

"First, we have to have the best science and engineering inform our policy," she said. Second, DOE needs to "take a systems perspective" rather than looking a policy from a narrow view, she said. Third, solving the problems will require "an open, collaborative workforce" and breaking down silos both inside the government and among government, business and academia.

Long term, Johnson said, DOE thinks that the energy use of buildings can be reduced by 60 percent to 70 percent and that the balance of the electricity needed can be generated by renewable sources. Lighting, which accounts for about 18 percent of the energy use in buildings, is an easy target. "It's estimated that about 70 percent of our (energy use) for lighting is wasted," she said. CFL and LED fixtures offer dramatic improvements over conventional fluorescent lighting.

She was also bullish about ground-source heat pumps as an energy source. This month, Chu announced that nearly $50 million in stimulus funds will be made available to advance the commercial deployment of geothermal heat pumps. "They use the stable temperature of the earth to heat homes in the winter and cool homes in the summer more efficiently," Johnson said. "This is a very exciting opportunity for us."

Dallas as a Green City

To a lot of people, including yours truly, Dallas still brings to mind images of J.R. Ewing and oilmen in cowboy hats. Forget that. The current mayor of Dallas, Tom Leppert, is an environmentalist and a very savvy businessman.

He's the former CEO of Turner Construction, one of the largest construction management companies in the United States (with a construction volume of $10.6 billion in 2008). He's a Harvard MBA. And since being elected mayor of Dallas in 2007, Leppert, a 55-year-old Republican, is widely seen as being headed for bigger things in politics.
Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert Energy Efficiency Forum
The energy efficiency issue has never gotten anyone elected to anything, but Leppert pushed it with the City Council in Dallas. The council passed a strong new building code last year that gradually requires commercial and residential buildings to meet energy-saving and water-saving standards.

By 2011, Leppert told the forum: "All buildings will have to meet LEED or similar certification standards, if they are going to be in the city of Dallas … We're doing it to position our city as a leader in this industry." He said the city wants to go further, changing living and working patterns to encourage more density around rail stations and mass transit.

Greener cities will attract more business development, as well as more people, Leppert argued. Looking out at the crowd, where people were tapping on laptops or checking cell phone messages, he said: "You get to make the decision where you live. And more of those decisions are going to be based on what environment you want to live in."

A very impressive guy, worth watching.

The Paradox of Energy Efficiency

Some provocative talk came from Roger Cooper, the executive vice president of the American Gas Association, about Jevons paradox, an economic theory you don't normally hear about an energy and environment meetings.

Writing about coal in the 1860s, William Stanley Jevons observed that England's coal consumption soared after James Watt introduced his coal-fired steam engine, which was more efficient than its predecessor. Jevons paradox, which is sometimes called the "rebound effect," has been used to oppose energy conservation or government-mandated efficiency.
AGA EVP Roger Cooper Energy Efficiency Forum
Cooper did not go that far, but he said policy makers should be aware that efficiency can be a double-edge sword. If prices stay constant, he said: "You increase energy efficiency, you make the resource cheaper and you lead to an increase in energy consumption."

U.S. cars, for example, have become far more efficient since the 1970s but gasoline use continues to grow because people drive more. When we buy an energy-efficient air conditioner, we are prone to run it more. Or think about long-distance phone calls or cell phone usage -- as bandwidth has gotten cheaper, prices drop, and people talk more than ever.

This would suggest that pricing, more than mandates, is the way to drive down energy usage.

For other coverage of the Energy Efficiency Forum, see Marc Gunther's posts about efficiency and wind energy initiatives at schools in Madison County, N.C., and Google's PowerMeter project.

CFL image CC licensed by David G. Romero.