These are heady times for energy efficiency aficionados. No longer do they have to rely just on that age-old shout to reduce electricity use: "Who left the lights on?"
Motion-sensing lighting is now standard fare in many new office buildings. It is included in some new homes and available for remodels. And when the new version of Title 24, the state's energy efficiency rules for new buildings and homes, goes into effect in January, we'll enter a whole new and exciting world of energy efficiency measures, including "adaptive lighting" requirements that will help save everyone money and energy.
Energy efficiency is the ultimate win-win. It's where California's early leadership has literally paid off. Since 1975, when the California Energy Commission passed the first version of Title 24, Californians have saved more than $74 billion. Money that would have had to have gone to paying light bills has been able to go to things like college tuition.
The savings can be counted in more than just dollars. Not wasting electricity also means not having to build more power plants, especially the polluting kind. More efficiency saves the air and saves lives. It cuts back on greenhouse gas pollution.
Last year, the California Energy Commission adopted new standards for what former Commissioner Art Rosenfeld referred to as vampires, those chargers we all use to power cellphones and other electronics. The new standards will ultimately annually save enough electricity to power the equivalent of 350,000 homes.
Right now, the Energy Commission is going through the steps for a list of other appliances and electronics to be regulated by efficiency standards. And just recently, the agency published the first draft of a plan to make older buildings and homes more efficient.
When the governor signed the state budget last month, it included direction for how to spend the new money generated by Proposition 39, passed by voters last year. That money will help improve energy efficiency in schools. Classrooms will be more comfortable on hot and cold days and money that schools would have spent to meet high electricity bills will now be spent on education.
Like I said, energy efficiency is the ultimate win-win. Yet despite that, there have been naysayers at every step of the way. Recently, there has been grumbling heard among legislators at the Capitol who are questioning whether spending state money to encourage efficiency has been worth the cost.
The Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO) reports that the state has invested about $9.5 billion over many years to fund various efficiency programs run by the Energy Commission or the Public Utilities Commission. The LAO figures that for every $1 the state spent on energy efficiency in 2012, there was $1.36 return in benefit. That cost-benefit ratio isn't as high as in the past, but it's still clear that putting public money into efficiency is paying off in dollars and cents.
How does all of this energy policy play out in real life?
I live in a house in Sacramento that was built in 1940. For 12 years, the house has been an efficiency project. Thin windows, ancient heating and air conditioning systems, and lighting have all been replaced slowly over time. This spring, we replaced the lackluster insulation in the attic and installed an automatic fan that sends the hot air out of the attic when temperatures in there climb to 105 degrees Fahrenheit.
Since June, Sacramento has suffered through multiple days of record three-digit high temps. Outside it's been roasting. But inside our home, we have stayed cool with only minimal use of air conditioning.
The technology and products we used to improve our home’s efficiency wouldn’t have been available if the state hadn’t begun its efficiency program nearly 40 years ago. I'd like to say we did the upgrades simply because it was the right thing to do for the environment. Other things played a role, too: comfort and the fact that we hate paying high electricity bills.
So let me say it once more, especially for the skeptics: Energy efficiency is the ultimate win-win.
Kathryn Phillips, Director
Sierra Club California
Sierra Club California is the Sacramento-based legislative and regulatory advocacy arm of the 13 California chapters of the Sierra Club.