The #1 way to fight climate change: Use LED lights

"Many people consider energy efficiency to be the low-hanging fruit," says Yu Wang. "If you’re facing the target of trying to mitigate climate change, energy efficiency should be the first choice because it’s cheap and easy in comparison with other options." (Credit: iStockphoto)

Replacing an old incandescent light bulb with new LED lighting might seem like an insignificant way to reduce energy consumption. It’s a simple step, but an effective one that shouldn’t be overlooked.

“Many people consider energy efficiency to be the low-hanging fruit,” says Yu Wang, who studies global energy policy and energy efficiency at Iowa State University.  “If you’re facing the target of trying to mitigate climate change, energy efficiency should be the first choice because it’s cheap and easy in comparison with other options.”

Most importantly, energy efficiency programs and policies reduce overall energy use, without requiring consumers to conserve or cut back their current level of service, Wang says. According to her estimates, implementing a combination of energy efficiency measures at home and at work could yield potential electricity savings of 10.2 percent by 2035.

Wang and colleague Marilyn Brown, a professor at Georgia Institute of Technology, analyzed federal, state, and local energy policies for their book Green Savings: How Policies and Markets Drive Energy Efficiency.

Their analysis shows how effective policies lead to greater energy savings and greenhouse gas reductions.

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“Most of the current programs and policies for energy efficiency can provide significant energy savings at a cost that is lower than the retail rate that we pay for electricity,” Wang says. “That means if you invest in energy efficiency, you will be able to get your money back and at the same time save energy.”

Based on her projections, Wang says it’s unusual that more consumers are not implementing energy efficiency measures in their homes. Unfortunately, many will never realize these savings because of a lack of or misinformation about different options and other market barriers.

The misconception that homeowners must invest a lot upfront before they realize any cost savings is just one example. But there are programs that can help consumers navigate and understand the energy-efficiency market.

“Energy efficiency programs don’t only look at your old appliances such as an old refrigerator or microwave. They also look at the cooling and heating equipment or old windows that need to be replaced,” Wang says. “Sometimes they will also help you to install all the possible measures and offer financial supports.”

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Utility companies may offer these types of programs but there is little incentive to do so because of the for-profit business model, Wang says. Reducing energy consumption reduces profits for utility companies that charge consumers based on electricity usage. State and local governments need to remove this disincentive by decoupling utility revenue from sales.

It will take a global effort to mitigate the effects of climate change. The federal government needs to lead the way by setting a national target for energy efficiency—but the US has a lot of room for improvement when compared to other countries.

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy has ranked the United States 13th (out of 16 countries) on its 2014 International Energy Efficiency Scorecard, behind China, India, and South Korea. Germany topped the list.

This international comparison is important, because climate change is not specific to one country or region, Wang says. The lack of a national energy efficiency policy or target is one area in which the US failed when compared to other countries. Multiscale complementary government policies could  maximize savings.

“That could mean having a unified, consistent national target and giving states the flexibility to choose specific programs they want to run or specific technologies they want to subsidize or support,” Wang says.

It will take a combination of financial incentives, regulations and information-based policies to make a visible difference. Massachusetts and California have had successes that other local and state governments could learn fro and adopt similar policies.

Enforcement is also critical. Some states have stringent building codes, but don’t follow through on compliance.

All avenues, including conservation efforts and renewable energy sources, are necessary to address climate change–but the energy efficiency market is a more affordable option than many renewable sources and does not require consumers to change their habits and routines.

“We should not just forget about the demand-side resources, and energy efficiency is one of them that can save us a significant amount of energy and at the same time save us money,” Wang says. “Energy efficiency is such an important, low-cost solution to climate change.”

Source: Iowa State University