Negawatt Power: The Progression of Energy Efficiency in US

Originally published in Sierra Magazine in 2007
By Reed McManus

IN FEBRUARY 1977, JIMMY CARTER donned a cardigan to encourage Americans, still reeling from the effects of the Arab oil embargo, to turn down their thermostats as a way of immediately reducing the country’s dependence on imported oil. The former nuclear engineer was parodied for what looked like a Mr. Rogers moment, and since then few politicians have dared suggest that we tighten our collective belts.

negawatt power

But the need for energy conservation has only accelerated. As in the 1970s, the country is wrestling with air-quality problems and a foreign policy and an economy beholden to oil-exporting nations. Global warming has added urgency.

The great come-to-conservation moment for many people, however, follows a slap to the wallet rather than to the head. Last summer, gasoline in the United States rose to more than $3 per gallon, its highest price in 25 years (adjusted for inflation). When Carter first called on Americans to conserve, gas cost just $1.50 per gallon (adjusted for inflation). Suddenly, a fuel-efficient hybrid is cooler than an SUV, and the fuel-oil savings gained from installing insulation, sealing drafty doors and windows, and, yes, putting on a sweater become obvious.

According to the American CouncilĀ forĀ an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), steps to increase efficiency can reduce U.S. energy use–and related greenhouse-gas emissions–by at least 30 percent. And that’s being … conservative. The “2,000-Watt Society” program promoted by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology claims it’s feasible to reduce average continuous per-capita power use in industrialized countries to 2,000 watts per day–that’s a two-thirds reduction in energy use for Europeans and a five-sixths decrease for spendthrift Americans–without crimping anyone’s standard of living.

More than 320 U.S. cities have begun to do their part through the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, an effort supported by the Sierra Club‘s Cool Cities Campaign ( Many utilities and manufacturers have turned to conservation as well: A utility that helps customers reduce energy demand can avoid the cost of new power plants; a manufacturer that performs life-cycle assessments on its products can reduce energy consumption and the cost of raw materials.

In the past, some of the biggest efficiency gains followed new federal standards, regulations, tax incentives, and research funding. For example, today’s typical refrigerator (which accounts for 20 percent of a household’s utility costs) uses about one-fourth the energy of a 1972 model. Efficiency standards for appliances generally save consumers $2 to $3 in utility costs for every dollar increase in purchase price.

Despite the benefits, the Bush administration has failed to adopt congressionally mandated energy-saving standards for nearly two dozen appliances, prompting a lawsuit by 15 state attorneys general and New York City. Last August, the administration proposed federal standards for the 40 million electrical-distribution transformers in the United States. After assessing six possible levels of efficiency, the Department of Energy chose the second-weakest standard–one that will squander 12 billion kilowatt-hours per year and cost more over the transformers’ 30- to 50-year life span than would a more efficient standard. The good news: Even the weak Bush proposal will eliminate the need to build 15 new carbon-dioxide-spewing power plants.

According to the ACEEE, more-aggressive national policies that emphasize renewable energy sources and efficiency could save a typical American family at least $650 a year. That would buy plenty of cardigans–and the benefits to national security and the environment would be priceless.

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