U.S. making major gains in energy efficiency

A U.S. group that was born out of necessity, following the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s, says that while America's energy consumption has increased dramatically over the past four decades, the nation's energy efficiency has also radically improved.

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) notes in a report that, over the past 35 years, energy usage in the U.S. rose 26 percent. At the same time, the nation's "energy efficiency" -- which ACEEE defines as energy use per real dollar of gross domestic product -- was virtually cut in half, from 12.1 thousand BTUs (British Thermal Units, a standard measure of energy) per dollar in 1980 to 6.1 last year.

"While part of that improvement can be attributed to structural changes in the economy, we conservatively estimate that about 60 percent of the improvement in energy intensity is due to efficiency improvements, saving consumers and businesses about $800 billion in 2014," Steven Nadel, ACEEE's executive director and the report's co-author, wrote in a recent blog post.

Nadel says that more efficient use of energy also saved the U.S. population about $2,500 on a per capita basis last year via programs like Zero-Net Energy buildings, a policy that will be required of all new commercial and residential buildings in California by 2030.

This heightened energy efficiency is the result of a range of improvements over the years to things like industrial and construction processes, as well as to transportation and the nation's electric grid, according to the group.

There are about 3,300 electric utility companies in the U.S., many of which already have sustainability and energy efficiency programs in place. And researchers say there is still plenty of room for further improvements when it comes to how American businesses, homes and individuals consume energy.

For example, as two engineering experts recently pointed out at IntelligentUtility.com, some commercial and industrial incentive programs, which offer energy-efficient upgrades to lighting and HVAC systems, can require as much as 30 pages of paperwork per application.

And there are also more practical issues. Results from a recent study of more than 30,000 Michigan households, conducted by researchers from the University of Chicago and the University of California, Berkeley, found the costs of the energy-efficiency investments in a home were about double the households' overall energy savings.

"Energy-efficiency programs are generally viewed as cost effective. This view is often based on engineering calculations and associated savings projections," Meredith Fowlie, an associate professor of resource economics and Class of 1935 Endowed Chair in Energy at UC Berkeley, said in a statement.

But Fowlie says their analysis shows how projections on these energy efficiency investments "can be quite flawed. In actuality, the energy efficiency investments we evaluated delivered significantly lower savings than the models predict."