The Next 100 Days, Part 2: Bring on the Sizzle

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"The Next 100 Days, Part 2: Bring on the Sizzle"

It is time for President Obama to mobilize us all to help build the new energy economy. The “clean energy FDR” has begun shaping the public policies we need with a history-making first 100 days. Now he needs to launch an interstate highway project, Marshall Plan, and war effort all rolled into one.

For starters, he should call on us all to pick up our caulking guns and enlist in the war against energy waste – a national clean energy surge.

Efficiency improvements and conservation have been America’s main source of energy since 1973, according to the Alliance to Save Energy. Yet, the potential for more savings is enormous. As Obama noted during the campaign, the United States is only the 22nd most energy-efficiency major economy in the world. With very few exceptions, every vehicle, home, power plant, factory, community and state is hemorrhaging energy, energy dollars and greenhouse gas emissions. Consider just a few examples:

  • We lose massive amounts of energy as electricity is generated and distributed. The typical coal plant turns only a third of its fuel into productive energy and more is lost in transmission lines.
  • The typical residential or commercial building could cut its energy use, and do it cost-effectively, by 25-40 percent.
  • According to the Rocky Mountain Institute, 70 cents of every dollar the typical community spends on energy immediately leaves the local economy. If more energy dollars were retained through energy efficiency and locally generated renewables, the money would circulate longer in the community. The result – not unlike keeping the ball in play in a pinball machine – is a “multiplier effect” that creates more local spending, jobs and businesses.
  • The U.S. Department of Energy estimated last year that the direct economic cost of oil dependence in 2008 would be $560 billion, reducing our GDP by 1.5 percent.
  • A study issued last year by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy estimated that a 30 percent gain in national energy efficiency by 2030 would create as many as 1.3 million net new jobs.

As so many have pointed out for so long, efficiency and conservation are the lowest of the low-hanging fruit in the U.S. economy. The benefits are well known. Lower energy bills are the equivalent of new tax-free income for every family and business. Efficiency and conservation insulates consumers from rising fossil energy prices, whether they’re caused by a natural disaster, a terrorist attack in some oil-producing country, extortion by the oil barons in the Persian Gulf or carbon pricing here at home.

Thanks to the economic stimulus bill that Obama pushed through Congress earlier this year, billions of dollars in new energy efficiency investments are moving into the economy as you read this post. Stimulus funds will retrofit federal buildings, weatherize low-income homes and give states and communities more money for energy efficiency and conservation programs. Additional funds will make down payments on improving the efficiency of air and rail travel and on building a “smart” electrical grid. (For a cool explanation of smart grid technology, see the web site constructed by General Electric).

The stimulus package also provides new tax incentives for homeowners who invest in energy efficiency. The Alliance to Save Energy web site offers a handy explanation of the many tax provisions of the bill and summarizes them this way:

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) extends, expands, and simplifies the federal income tax credits for homeowners who make energy efficiency home improvements. The law extends the consumer tax benefits for another year, through 2010; triples the total available tax credit from $500 to $1,500; and increases the tax credit to 30 percent of the cost of each qualified energy efficiency improvement. The law also removes the cap on geothermal heat pumps and solar water heaters through 2016.

The bill contains some benign bribery for states, too. One of the keys to more widespread energy efficiency is allowing utilities to earn a reasonable profit from efficiency programs. Most states don’t do that today. The stimulus bill offers additional money to any state whose governor attests that regulators are considering this reform.

President Obama has come close to calling for a national clean energy campaign. In his Earth Day message from Iowa, for example, the president stressed personal responsibility for energy use and urged every American to replace one conventional light bulb with a compact fluorescent. But we can do better than that, and so can he. We need some executive sizzle – some aggressive presidential jawboning and symbolism to go along with Obama’s impressive progress on energy and climate policy.

There is no shortage of sizzle consultants available to the White House, but here are some suggestions:

  • During the campaign, Obama proposed that the nation reduce its electricity demand 15 percent from DOE’s projected levels by 2020. This should be elevated from a dry campaign promise to a compelling national objective. The President should call upon all Americans to participate in an all-hands-on-deck drive to make America one of the most resource-efficient countries on the planet. The Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Report can help track our progress. Because this should be a stretch goal that brings out our best efforts, the president should direct DOE to regularly assess the 15 percent target to determine whether new technologies allow us to be more ambitious.
  • In his campaign platform, Obama endorsed the idea that all new buildings should be carbon-neutral by 2030. Now he should ask the building industry to work with the U.S. Department of Energy to produce a model national building code for zero-carbon buildings.
  • The 100 million existing homes in the United States offer huge opportunities for energy savings. As Bryan Walsh notes in TIME, the $8 billion in the stimulus package to retrofit the homes of low-income families barely scratches the surface of the nation’s existing housing stock. Congress should beef up tax credits for housing retrofits in the next energy bill, but Obama needn’t wait.

The President should challenge students to conduct energy audits of their schools, children and parents to audit their homes, and teachers to get students involved in energy efficiency activities. DOE’s Energy Hog web site offers ideas, tools and guidance. Whether it’s adjusting a thermostat, sealing a window, replacing a refrigerator gasket, tweaking the air pressure in tires, unplugging a cell phone charger or doing something more capital-intensive, there are few if any households or schools in the United States that can’t find a way to become more energy efficient.

  • The President can set the example by enlisting Sasha and Malia to use the Energy Hog site to help audit the White House. A “Greening the White House” initiative launched by President Clinton in 1993 made improvements that saved more than $1.4 million over six years — but new technologies have emerged these past 16 years and experts say it’s time to green the White House again. As the Associated Press has reported:

Obama promised before he took office that he wanted to sit down with White House staff to evaluate what can be done to conserve energy in a 132-room behemoth of a mansion/office that leaves an EEE-sized carbon footprint.

“Part of what I want to do is to show the American people that it’s not that hard,” Obama said in a television interview during the transition. He said he’s one of those people who tiptoes around and turns off lights at night. “I’m not going to be obsessive about it. But I do that in my current house. So there’s no reason why I wouldn’t do it in my next one.”

  • President Obama should ask State Energy Offices to send DOE the most innovative examples of energy efficiency and conservation. He should recognize the best of the best each year in a Rose Garden event.

The President has asked the country for patience as he and his team work on the many problems facing us right now. When it comes to solving the energy and climate crises, he should ask not just for patience, but for participation. I bet most Americans want to help and would welcome more information on what to do. I bet most would be motivated as part of a national movement. I bet most Americans like the idea of saving money — and understand that building a new energy economy is not a spectator sport.

— Bill Becker

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17 Responses to The Next 100 Days, Part 2: Bring on the Sizzle

  1. hapa says:

    coulda woulda shoulda had CFLs and energy audit stuff in all the precinct walkers’ hands during the campaigns — big lost opportunity — but happily, those volunteers are still alive and eager to see their organization do something for the country

  2. Well done, sir, well done. This is a terrific column.

    In terms of energy efficiency rankings, do you know where I could go to find how the US and Canada compare the EU.

    I’m not sure why, but my Google searches are coming up empty.

  3. Modesty says:

    In the Next 1 (One) Day, the Obama administration should move ahead decisively to meet the May 4 deadline for proposing an amendment to the Montreal Protocol, so as to phase down global use of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs.

    http://solveclimate.com/blog/20090429/state-department-plans-tap-montreal-protocol-urgent-climate-duty

    http://solveclimate.com/blog/20090430/state-department-climate-move-hits-snag-white-house

  4. oxnardprof says:

    Good post.

    The energy efficiency incentives are good, but do have some gaps. For example, I own a rental home that could use upgrading (it was built in 1970). However, I get no tax credits for replacing the windows, etc, and I get no benefit since the tenant pays the utlities. It would be nice to get some incentive for landlords to improve energy efficiency in rental units.

    Second, natural disasters are a fact of life. Climate change will likely increase the numbers of homes destroyed. In reponse, FEMA funds are used to help stimulate recovery. I wonder if region-specific flexible architectural designs can be developed that would embody sustainable concepts. FEMA funding can include incentives to homeowners who utilize these designs when rebuilding after a regional natural disaster.

    If these designs are available, perhaps new developments, speculators, etc. can have a basis to plan construction outside of a disaster situation. For example, if an individual home is lost to fire, the rebuild should have a cost-effective way of implementing sustainable rebuilding.

  5. paulm says:

    Richard,

    David Mackay has an excellent go at standardizing and showing energy consumption figures…

    Energy plans for Europe, America, and the World
    http://www.inference.phy.cam.ac.uk/withouthotair/c30/page_231.shtml

  6. Will Greene says:

    The great thing about Obama is he may actually do something like this. Unfortunately he’s putting healthcare above energy, which is a change from what he said in his campaign.

  7. Pangolin says:

    I have to agree with Oxnardprof that some mechanism has to emerge to improve the energy efficiency of rental housing. These housing units are the most likely to have dated, inefficient equipment, single pane windows, poor insulation, black roofs in hot climates, etc, etc. We cannot meet climate goals by leaving the poorer half of the populace behind.

    Energy retrofits need to be funded through utility bills with the caveat that the total average bill cannot be greater after the retrofits than before. It actually would be best if we overdid many of these projects pushing as many existing buildings as close as possible to a net-zero standard.

    This should go triple for schools. Every school in the US should be allowed a solar feed-in tariff sufficient to fund solar pv on all appropriate roofing surfaces. Every school should be converted to ground-loop HVAC if they have the land and the soils that make drilling possible. Every school should have top-of-the line windows, doors, and air handling systems.

    The spoiler that prevents installation of these systems is the need to pay interest rates on the capital needed for installation. Given that the nation faces twin dooms of climate change and economic collapse this would be a great place for the Federal government to produce some zero-interest loans.

    We found the money for wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and the world’s largest prison population. We should be able to find the money to build something.

  8. Pat Richards says:

    OK… seriously, folks… can we drop the cutesy “the green FDR” nickname? I thought the new messaging strategy was to discontinue the phrase “green energy” in favor of the much more appropriate “clean energy”. I agree with that idea, the G word has been badly overused and abused. They’re even trying to convince us that you can now buy a “green SUV”. Besides, the FDR comparison has already overdone in these first 100 days, and I have no doubt that the President isn’t wild about the media continuing to make the comparison. I’m sure he wants to be known as himself, for himself, and not permanently labeled with some other man’s initials.

    [JR: You’re right — it’s the clean energy FDR!]

  9. Paul M… Thanks!

  10. This is a very good post in the context of cap and share – we think 5006 kWh of electricity from coal and gas per person and 3.25 barrels of oil per person is equitable and sustainable this year, declining to 2991 kWh of electricity from coal and gas and 1.76 barrels of oil per person in 2020. We are praying the USA will agree at CoP 15 to introducing cap and share and a new emission backed currency unit to enforce consumption restraint of this type in the USA, and create purchasing power for energy in Kenya and elsewhere.

  11. Mark Shapiro says:

    “Lower energy bills are the equivalent of new tax-free income for every family and business.”

    Conservation and efficiency IS tax-free income for every individual and family.
    Repeat: It is TAX-FREE INCOME. Repeat until every tea-bagger in the country knows it.

    (For a business, lower energy bills mean higher profits, but it’s taxable. For a family, the savings are tax-free.)

  12. Mark Shapiro says:

    Thanks for the great post.

    Minor edits: Malia Obama (not Melia);

    and what is that nice graph of quads vs. years about?

    [JR: Thanks!]

  13. David B. Benson says:

    Require ultilities to use to the most efficient transformers in new lines and as replacements. Big, big energy efficiency measure.

    You do this by convincing your utility regulatory commissioners.

    All the utilties want is a level playing field. If required, they will happily comply.

  14. Karl says:

    While we are “greening” the White House why don’t we put solar panels up on the roof once again? Solar technology has advanced since Jimmy Carter’s time. Time to put them up again. The White House grounds are probably even big enough to put medium sized wind turbine up. We’ve got one here in Minnesota on a urban college campus (Macalester College, former home of Kofi Annan), why not the White House?

    The media is obsessed with the First Family. Leverage that to set a example. Have Michelle and Barack do interviews and show the news people around the White House showing them the various green technologies and promoting .gov sites with info about how people can do the same.

  15. Two points (and links if anyone is interested in details):

    1. This is perhaps the best time ever to do a full Home Energy Makeover given confluence of tax credits, utility rebates, and lowest mortgage interest rates in decades. Sample home energy makeover & how the dollars pan out for a typical homeowner is at:

    http://energyeconomyonline.com/Energy_Makeover_Time.html

    2. The government is beyond being out of money so I can’t see promoting even more tax credits. Rather, the govt needs to mandate a reform of banking practices so that whenever a building is purchased, or refinanced, energy bills must come into play as a required part of borrower qualification formula. This would revolutionize building energy efficiency. Anything short of bringing the bankers on board (even new building codes) will still run up against the barrier that a higher-cost (but more energy-efficient) home is harder to finance and therefore harder to sell. Unless the lower energy costs are required to be factored into bank’s qualification formula for borrowers, builders will resist new building codes, and the older buildings will still not be retrofitted to higher standards. Details on this proposal at:

    http://energyeconomyonline.com/Banks_Fund_Green_Jobs.html

  16. Jim Prall says:

    Richard Levagnie wrote:
    “In terms of energy efficiency rankings, do you know where I could go to find how the US and Canada compare the EU. I’m not sure why, but my Google searches are coming up empty.”

    Look for “energy intensity of GDP” as one measure. Here’s a site with detailed breakdowns (free, reg. req’d.): http://cait.wri.org/cait.php?page=compcoun

    There’s also a not-bad Wikipedia entry on this:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_intensity

    from which I especially like the figure plotting GDP against energy efficiency for the 40 highest GDP nations:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Gdp-energy-efficiency.jpg

    One surprise: the country with by far the highest GDP per unit energy (of those shown) is Bangladesh, which has over three times the energy efficiency of GDP of most others in this list (I’m guessing it was at position #40).

  17. James Newberry says:

    Thanks for your thoughts Bill Becker. Here’s another.

    When applications for home mortgages are submitted, require the budget limit guidelines, such as 30% max. of gross income, to be adjusted to include the cost of transportation in that neighborhood as well. For example, if the total of mortgage and local transportation were limited to 50% of income we could see a move to smart development and public transit. This might be as powerful in affecting change as all the caulk and window retrofits in America.