California pushed from top energy efficiency spot

It had to happen.

California, the land of energy efficiency pioneer Art Rosenfeld, has lost its title as the most miserly power consumer to East Coast upstart Massachusetts.

It's the first time in the five-year history of the annual Energy Efficiency Scorecard by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, or ACEEE, that Massachusetts has displaced the high-performing Golden State. The group says "a sour U.S. economy, tight state budgets and a failure by Congress to adopt a comprehensive energy strategy have not slowed the growing momentum among U.S. states toward increased energy efficiency."

Energy efficiency budgets increase

The report says that overall budgets for energy efficiency increased to $4.5 billion in 2010, up about a third over the previous year. Michigan, Illinois, Nebraska, Tennessee, Alabama and Maryland rated the most improved, and about half the nation's states have established energy efficiency standards and improved building codes.

"Energy efficiency is America's abundant, untapped energy resource and the states continue to press forward to reap its economic and environmental benefits," says ACEEE Executive Director Steven Nadel, in a statement.

Nadel calls energy efficiency "a pragmatic, bipartisan solution that political leaders from both sides of the aisle can support."

Rounding out the top 10 are New York, Oregon, Vermont, Washington State, Rhode Island, Minnesota, Connecticut and Maryland.

Poll says people want efficiency

The news comes on the heels of a poll released by the University of Texas at Austin, which found that less than 14 percent of Americans think the country is headed in the right direction on energy.

University officials say that of more than 3,400 consumers surveyed, 84 percent were worried about U.S. consumption of oil from foreign sources and 76 percent about a lack of progress in developing better ways to use energy efficiently and develop renewable sources.

Bill Powers, president of UT Austin, put it this way: "This survey shows that the public craves leadership on energy issues."

Embracing the submeter

The public isn't the only place where concern over energy sources and energy efficiency are fostering change. Corporations, building managers and others that pay big utility bills for operations of major square footage or spread over multiple buildings are looking to trim costs through efficiencies.

Paul Baier of reports that the next big expansion in energy efficiency will be "submetering," or installing sensors and meters in buildings to monitor and tweak energy usage. "As more and more companies find energy savings opportunities based on submetering their facilities, interest in the technology continues to grow," he writes.

Baier says much of the savings comes through behavior changes, such as turning off unneeded equipment. The University of Texas poll likewise finds that many U.S. consumers would be willing to employ similar strategies on their own turf with 68 percent concerned about the energy efficiency of their homes.

Could politics be far behind?

Judging by this widespread potential adoption of efficiency, politicians won't be far behind including it in their platforms and bragging about measures they've taken in their own homes. Although I just can't imagine Texas Gov. Rick Perry going Al Gore and saying his house is net zero.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick says his state set aggressive goals and laid the foundation for greater investment in energy efficiency through its Green Communities Act, "and now we are proud to be a model for the nation and world."

Expect more of the same after this year's numbers are tallied. Maryland and Illinois, which showed big gains, are taking energy efficiency seriously.

Malcolm Woolf, director of the Maryland Energy Administration, says Illinois Gov. Martin O'Malley also set aggressive energy efficiency goals, saving residents more than 700,000 megawatt hours of electricity and more than $91 million since 2009.

Warren Ribley, Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity director, says the investment of more than $600 million in energy efficiency projects over the last four years has meant putting people to work. "We are creating jobs, building more sustainable communities and securing our place in the new energy economy," he says in a statement.

The bottom performing 10 states from last to No. 42 are: North Dakota, Wyoming, Mississippi, Kansas, Oklahoma, South Carolina, West Virginia, Missouri, Alabama and South Dakota.

Photo: Boston Harbor at night.