Energy Efficiency in the South: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

by Bill Chameides | April 22nd, 2010
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 1 comment

The 40th anniversary of Earth Day finds the South lagging in energy efficiency.

The Ugly First: The South’s High Rankings for Low Efficiency

The South is doing a pitiful job when it comes to energy efficiency. For example, take the latest scorecard from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy that surveys the energy efficiency of the 50 U.S. states. The rankings are based on six different metrics that help measure how well each state is adopting and implementing energy-efficiency policies and programs.

Of the 16 states in the southern region (as defined by the Census Bureau [pdf] from Delaware and the District of Columbia to Texas):

  • seven ranked in the 10 most inefficient states (among these is Mississippi, which tied with North Dakota for being the most inefficient) and
  • another four ranked between 30 and 40 in efficiency (see map below).

It’s not uniformly bad: Maryland has a fairly impressive ranking of 11; Washington, D.C., and Delaware are tied at 20; and Florida clocks in at 23. A closer examination of the data shows that out of a possible 50 points there were a few southern states in the middle of the pack, such as Maryland, with 24 points.

Source: American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE)

But the bulk of the South (11 out of the 16 states) scored far worse, garnering fewer than 12 points apiece … out of 50.

The Bad: Low Electricity Rates, Weak Conservation Ethic, High Heating and Cooling Loads

There are reasons the South does such a poor job with its energy. These include:

  • historically low electricity rates, tied to the region’s heavy reliance on cheap but highly polluting coal,
  • significant heating and cooling loads that characterize many southern states,
  • a relatively weak energy conservation ethic (based on public opinion polls),
  • low market penetration of energy-efficient products (based on purchase behavior), and
  • lower than average expenditures on energy-efficiency programs.

Another cause, some argue, has to do with the marketplace itself. David Roberts from the online environmental publication Grist points to the fact that much of the electricity in the South is supplied by regulated monopolies and does not compete on the open market. If a utility is guaranteed a customer base and a certain return no matter how inefficient it is, some argue, where’s the incentive to invest in selling less power and lowering profits?

Countering those arguments are people like Jim Rogers, CEO of Duke Energy, who points to his company’s energy efficiency programs.

The Good: Lots of Room to Improve the South’s Energy Efficiency

Pointing and deflecting fingers of blame are easy things to do, but sometimes the blame game allows us to lose sight of the silver lining: The South’s profligate energy usage means there’s lots of room for improvement.

Enter the latest report from Duke’s Nicholas Institute and Georgia Tech — it highlights just how much can be gained with improvements to energy efficiency. The study sketches a road map for nine policy initiatives that would raise the South’s energy efficiency to a point where energy consumption over the next 20 years would flatline. Yes, that’s right, electricity consumption would essentially remain the same for the next two decades while allowing the region’s economy to grow.

It doesn’t stop there either. There are a lot of impressive stats in the report, such as reaping the following benefits by 2020:

  • saving consumers $41 billion on their energy bills,
  • providing 380,000 new jobs, and
  • saving 8.6 billion gallons of water.

But one stat that struck me was the difference between the additional power needs in the reference scenario versus the efficiency initiatives scenario. Here the study authors estimate that by 2030 the South will need an additional 49 GW of new capacity in their business-as-usual case, but in the efficiency initiatives scenario the South does not only grow its net capacity; it’s also able to reduce it by 19 GW. That would translate into a cut of 200 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) — or 10 percent less than business-as-usual growth. With a price on carbon in addition to energy-efficiency measures, the CO2 savings could grow to almost 30 percent under the modeled scenarios.

At the end of Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) Clint Eastwood’s Blondie — the “Good” character — explains how you figure out who has the leg-up: “See in this world, there’s two kinds of people, my friend: those with loaded guns and those who dig.” But Blondie’s not just powerful because he’s holding the gun. He also knows where the money is, and while it doesn’t hurt that he’s a good shot, it’s that knowledge that saves his life and ultimately leads to the big payoff of gold. For those of us in the South, we now know where the money is: be more energy efficient and get a good payoff. That’s not ugly or bad — it’s downright good.

filed under: economy, energy, energy efficiency, faculty
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1 Comment

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  1. Jim
    Apr 23, 2010

    We just bought our Energy Star Washer today through the rebate program, maybe that will help a tiny bit. Our old washer still worked fine and I always wondered if it saved more energy just hanging on to the old one, since there is a certain amount of environmental impact just for building a new machine. Hopefully the new washer will last long enough to make up the difference.

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