US sees renaissance in energy efficiency, led by Congress and big business
For decades, the US has been transforming into a more energy efficient society. But fresh impetus has come in the wake of a 2007 law embracing tougher appliance and auto standards.
A forklift driver zooms through a dark warehouse late at night. There are no lights on his machine pointing the way, yet intelligent light bulbs lining the ceiling flash on as they recognize the direction he's heading, then flash off as he passes on his way.Skip to next paragraph
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Whether it's intelligent lighting in warehouses nationwide, building codes in Massachusetts, or new federal gas-mileage standards, energy efficiency is enjoying a renaissance. Since conservation first entered the American consciousness in the 1970s – prompted by the energy crisis and the dawn of environmentalism – the nation has become dramatically more energy-efficient. But recent years have, by some measures, represented a high-water mark.
The passage of the federal Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which strengthened appliance and auto fuel-efficiency standards, was the biggest energy-efficiency measure "the country has ever adopted," says Kateri Callahan, president of the Alliance to Save Energy in Washington. Since then, the Obama administration has used tax incentives to encourage energy efficiency in homes and businesses. Even businesses themselves, seeing long-term savings, have begun to take the lead without Washington's prompting.
"We're definitely paying more attention to it," says Fred Fendt, the energy efficiency and conservation team leader for Dow Chemical Co. in Midland, Mich. "It's become a part of almost every corporate culture."
The general upward trend in energy efficiency has had a profound impact on the country. Without the advances, the US would consume 50 percent more energy each year than it currently does, according to the Alliance to Save Energy.
Data point to a clear change in energy efficiency beginning in the 1970s. Before that, for example, the amount of energy consumed (in British thermal units) per dollar of US gross domestic product had held fairly steady. In 1973, it stood at 15.41. But by 2010, it had fallen by more than half to 7.41.
Improvements have been across the board.
For its part, Congress has been able to find compromise on regulations to improve energy efficiency because the issue lies at the sweet spot among energy independence, economic security, and the environment, says Ms. Callahan of the Alliance to Save Energy. The very name of Congress's signature Bush-era measure – the Energy Independence and Security Act – speaks to its bipartisan appeal.