Energy Conservation: Picking Low Hanging Fruit

Retrofits are one of the easiest and most cost-effective ways to reduce energy usage. Installing new pumps, programmable thermostats and motors, beefing up insulation and putting in more efficient lights and windows can reap huge benefits with a relatively modest investment.

Many case studies (like this) and research papers (such as this Pike report from last year, and these just released) extol the virtues of energy efficiency. In these tough economic times, finding an investment with those sorts of yields is tough. We are doing our bit by helping 36 cash-strapped cities and counties in the it-gets-so-hot-I-burn-my-hand-on-the-steering-wheel San Joaquin Valley save 5.4 million kWh of energy through retrofits, such as new streetlights.

Maybe those jurisdictions can preserve a job or two with the monetary savings. Even a journalism major such as myself understands the logic: If my power bill is reduced, I save money. That means I have more cash to invest, or to spend stimulating the economy and putting my daughter through college.

And maybe create a few jobs in the process. Energy conservation doesn't require the same beehive of labor as new construction, but look around you: How many subdivisions are being built? I counted five home builders in my east Clovis neighborhood in 2006; now there are two. Nearly 2 million construction jobs have disappeared since 2007.

In February, President Obama announced the Better Buildings Initiative, which was designed to encourage energy savings in commercial buildings. The goal is a 20 percent reduction in power usage by 2020.

A just-released report crunches national and industry data, and concludes the program would generate 114,000 jobs, with the greatest benefit occurring if tax incentives are used to encourage retrofits.

The analysis concludes the impact would trickle down. There would be direct employment at the job site, but suppliers and manufacturers would see a boost in business too.

The U.S. Green Building Council, Real Estate Roundtable and Natural Resources Defense Council have proposed a few tweaks to the policy to make it more effective: measuring energy savings to an existing baseline; linking the amount of incentives to actual energy savings; and tying a portion of the incentive to implementation of efficiency measures and a portion to demonstrated energy savings.

The last recommendation maximizes accountability: the building owner claims 60 percent of the incentive when the efficiency measures are put into place and the rest after two years of demonstrated savings are achieved.

Saving money and electricity, and producing jobs. There's a reason why conservation is often called the "low-hanging fruit" of the clean-energy movement.