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US sees renaissance in energy efficiency, led by Congress and big business

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"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.

"No one wants to waste energy," Callahan says.

For business, the allure has been simple savings.

Hotels are installing smart air-conditioning units that shut off when a guest leaves an outside door open; fast-food chains are retrofitting their insulation; refrigeration warehouses are replacing hot incandescent lights with cooler LED ones.

"Those guys running forklifts, they're not in it for green-energy-save-the-world reasons," says Robert Day, a partner with Black Coral Capital in Boston and a leading figure in clean-tech investing. "They're in it because it makes dollars and cents."

Federal laws and tax incentives have provided a prod, but much of the credit also goes to economic forces. As energy costs have crept higher, businesses have been reevaluating how and when they use electricity and fuel. Suddenly, replacing old light bulbs with intelligent lighting has become a sensible way to cut costs, say energy experts.

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