Alas, Energy Efficiency Isn't Sexy

Alas, Energy Efficiency Isn't Sexy

If The Graduate (1967) were remade today, the famous scene where Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) gets career advice might have to be rewritten this way:

Mr. McGuire: I want to say two words to you. Just two words.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Energy efficiency.

Energy efficiency is not as sexy as solar power or wind turbines or electric cars. It's not even as sexy as plastics. In fact, it can be stupefyingly dull. It's not much of a punchline. But it matters. It matters a lot.

Efficiency isn't as sexy as Mrs. Robinson's stockings INSERT ALT TEXT HERE

Today, I'm in Indian Wells, Calif., in the southern California desert where I spoke to the Energy and Technical Services Conference of the Food Marketing Institute. About 450 people are here. They are mostly engineers, responsible for the energy operations of America's supermarkets, and the business people who sell them such products and services as micro-channel coil technology, optional variable speed EC motors, refrigerant-based industrial dehumidifiers, advanced aerodynamic fan blades, fluorescent leak detection products, etc. Breakout sessions covered such topics as "Refrigeration Innovation: Evaporative Misting/Cooling" and "The High Cost of NOT Doing Preventative Maintenance" and "Energy Innovation: Target Ventilation Case Study."

Are you still with me?

Here's the thing: These are the kinds of people who, if they do their jobs right, are going to help us solve the climate crisis. As McKinsey & Co. has reported, the U.S. economy can reduce non-transportation energy consumption by 23 percent by 2020, eliminating $1.2 trillion in waste. Judging from a number of conversations that I had with several the engineers here, the energy-saving opportunities in the supermarket industry are really significant. Here are a three quick examples of companies who think there's money to be made in driving efficiency:

• A Minneapolis-based software company called Verisae provides supermarket chains with Web-based software to track their energy usage and carbon emissions. Surprisingly, many today don't even know where they stand. Clients include Tesco and Sainsbury in the UK, who are ahead of the curve when it comes to tracking carbon.
• Another startup, called Pax Streamline, uses the principles of biomimicry to move fluids around more efficiently, which can help remove humidity from supermarkets and curb refrigeration costs. The company motto is "streamlining the industrial world. Sounds good to me. Biomimicry is exciting.
• Smart coolers and vending machines that learn from customer usage patterns are enabled by a company called Elstat. Why keep drinks cold 24/7 if people only want them cold during office hours? Coca-Cola is their biggest customer, and they are talking to retailers, as well as PepsiCo.

Of course, the big names in energy efficiency -- Johnson Controls, Emerson, Schneider Electric -- are here, too. Several of their sales people told me (but not for quotation) that the supermarket industry is culturally and politically conservative, slow to adopt new technologies and therefore missing lots of easy opportunities, with paybacks of less than two years, to save energy and reduce emissions. That's discouraging because it means there's a great deal of waste out there, but it's good news because there's lots of opportunity to progress. Unfortunately, these insiders said, some supermarket chains find it easier to arm-twist suppliers to reduce packaging, say, than they do to invest in their own operations. They probably need a push from Washington.

It was fitting, I told the group, that FMI's energy experts were meeting in California. This is where you can see the clean energy revolution taking shape. On my flight into Palm Springs, I saw wind turbines on a hillside by the airport and lots of solar panels on roofs. Efficiency is an even bigger success story for California, as Ron Brownstein reports in a excellent feature called The California Experiment in the new issue of The Atlantic:

Efficiency and decoupling have helped California to consume electricity far more thriftily than the rest of America. At the time of the 1973 oil shock, California used about 17 percent less electricity per person than the country at large. Since then…per capita electricity use in the nation has increased by about 50 percent to about 12,000 kilowatt-hours annually. Meanwhile, over that same period, per capita electricity use in California has remained absolutely flat at about 7,000 kilowatt-hours per year. That means the average Californian today uses about 40 percent less electricity per year than the average American.

So the challenge is to spread California's commitment to efficiency elsewhere. The Obama administration gets this. Just this morning, the energy department announced a new $450 million program "designed to catalyze a nationwide energy upgrade" that its experts say could save $100 million annually in utility bills for households and businesses. The idea is to rollout efficiency upgrades much in the way the nation rolled out cable TV or the Internet, as the press release says:

"Energy efficiency isn't just low-hanging fruit; it's fruit lying on the ground. We have the tools to reduce energy use at home and at work and to provide huge savings to families and businesses on their energy bills. But use of these technologies has been far too limited because we lack the simple and effective ways for people to access them," said Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

Now, whether the government can accomplish this, er, efficiently remains to be seen.

But there's no doubt in my mind that energy efficiency will be a much bigger business tomorrow than it is today. No, it's not as sexy or as amusing as "plastics." But if you have a kid who will someday will become a graduate, this could be a good time to think about engineering school.