Obama & co: Make 2009 the Year of Energy Efficiency

To face the long-term problem of global warming we need to be rooted in short-term reality. And the reality of the year ahead is a global recession that will make life harder for almost everyone. So, 2009 is an opportunity to utilize the tool that both cuts costs and lowers greenhouse gas emissions -- energy efficiency. Focusing on efficiency over solar isn't greenwash, it's common sense.

I'm as big a fan of solar and wind power as anyone, but the recent crash in oil and natural gas prices make them less competitive than early 2008. And with our money problems in the US and beyond, we need our climate mitigation efforts to have a big bang for each buck. That's why it is the perfect time to focus on energy efficiency.

Energy efficiency has helped US oil consumption fall more than 5% this year, with coal and natural gas demand about equal to 2007. This lower overall fossil fuel use is poised to translate into greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) that are ~2.5% below the 2007 level to the lowest net emissions since the 1990s! If we ramp up efficiency further, we can cut emissions further in the year ahead.

Obama & co. could support rapid efficiency deployment by initiating a federal Energy Corps that employs over a million people from Maine to Hawaii. The first wave of green collar professionals will be needed to do energy audits on homes, offices, and manufacturing plants. And the second wave can then provide the most cost-effective efficiency upgrades determined for each locale -- from additional insulation to a passive solar renovation to CFL and LED lighting.

This Energy Corps can focus on markets where electricity consumption is projected to grow to prevent a need for expensive new coal and natural gas power plants and keep GHGs in check. Once the economy begins to pick up (hopefully in 2010), the Energy Corps can put half its focus on accelerating deployment of renewable energy to more than satisfy new demand and help emissions continue to drop even when the economy is growing.

In proposing this plan, I do not mean we should abandon renewables in 2009. We need to renew a Production Tax Credit through 2010 for wind power ASAP that lets wind producers know we support their long-term success. And we'll need to think of innovative ways to support solar and other renewables along with the Investment Tax Credit recently extended through 2016. The recession will help lower solar panel and wind turbine prices as producers' supply catches up with rapid demand growth. As long as we ensure renewables producers do not collapse a la the late-1980s they will be poised for more white-hot growth as their prices move toward grid parity in the years to come.

But 2009 is a year for belt-tightening. So, our focus should be on cost-cutting changes that help increase our energy security, mitigate climate change, and lower our energy bills all at the same time. Energy efficiency is the appropriate tool, and Obama and his companions in federal leadership can initiate an Energy Corps next year to deploy it.

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