What Is Energy Efficiency & Why Is It Important 

Photo by JJ Janee Watts

Photo by JJ Janee Watts

Being energy efficient means doing the same amount of work while using less energy. For example, an energy efficient washing machine provides the same service, laundry, but at a lower rate of energy consumption. Similarly, a well-insulated house is more energy efficient because less heat escapes and therefore less heat needs to be used to maintain a comfortable living environment.

Energy efficiency can be achieved in a variety of ways. One way is to update or design new buildings to take advantage of natural resources and minimize energy waste. Situating a building with large windows facing south towards deciduous shade trees is an example of using passive heating and cooling to reduce energy use. In winter, the sun shines into the house through the windows, reducing the need to use electric or gas-fed heat, and the trees provide shade in the summer, preventing the sun from warming the house. Other building design practices that achieve energy efficiency include proper insulation, using double pane windows, and maximizing green space to decrease heat absorption. New technologies also help increase energy efficiency. Appliances account for an estimated 20% of the average American household’s energy bill. Replacing old appliances with newer, more efficient ones can cut back on electrical use and help lower energy bills. For example, an “Energy Star” certified refrigerator must use at least 20% less energy than current standards and 40% less energy than the standard from 2001. Visit our links page to find sites where you can calculate potential savings by switching to Energy Star appliances.

Another way to increase energy efficiency is to reduce or reuse the waste heat that is typically produced from industrial processes. About 30% of energy use in all industries is lost due to transportation and equipment inefficiencies. Annually, about 10 quadrillion BTUs of energy are emitted as waste heat and an additional 1.4 quadrillion BTUs are lost in the form of chemical emissions from industrial processes, roughly 1,960 million barrels of oil equivalent. Researching new technologies to capture the waste heat and chemical energy and turn it into electricity or other usable forms of energy could offset petroleum demand and provide cheaper, cleaner electricity to industries.

Improving fuel economy in vehicles increases energy efficiency because it reduces the need for a finite energy source without compromising the function of the vehicle. With current technology, only about 15% of the fuel used in vehicles actually serves to move the vehicle, or for other useful features such as air conditioning. The remaining 85% of fuel energy is lost to idling and mechanical inefficiencies. Internal combustion engines are very inefficient at converting the fuel’s chemical energy to mechanical energy, losing 62% of the fuel’s energy to engine friction, pumping air into and out of the engine, and wasted heat. A combination of engine and exterior redesign for commercial vehicles could save both consumers and producers money in fuel savings.

Why Energy Efficiency is Important

Energy efficiency is one of the quickest and cheapest ways to increase the amount of energy available for use. In contrast, building new power plants is expensive and requires years of paperwork before groundbreaking can happen. U.S. energy intensity (U.S. energy consumption per dollar of real gross domestic product) decreased by 46% from 1975 to 2005, mostly due to increasingly efficient technologies. According to a report by the Rocky Mountain Institute, the U.S. would have needed to consume 2.1 times as much oil during this period if not for this increase in energy efficiency.

Energy efficiency measures add up to real dollars saved. According to the Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy program, Americans saved $7 billion on residential energy bills in 2004 from energy saving measures and by building energy efficient homes. Energy efficiency is especially vital to Alaskans, many of whom must contend with high fuel costs and extreme winter weather. Reduced greenhouse gas emissions and industrial pollution also result from increased energy efficiency. As of 2000, electricity production was responsible for 62.6% of U.S. sulfur dioxide emissions (acid rain), 21.1% of U.S. nitrous oxides emissions (urban smog), and 40% of U.S. carbon emissions (greenhouse gas). An additional 56% of nitrous oxide emissions and 34% of carbon emissions are a by-product of transportation. Adopting energy efficiency measures help reduce these pollutants and save money. For example, the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) estimates that from 2006-2020, extended energy efficiency tax incentives could reduce consumer energy bills by $27 billion, prevent more than 51 million metric tons of carbon emissions, and reduce peak electric demand by more than 6,000 MW (equivalent to the capacity of twelve 500 MW coal plants).

Numerous other benefits of energy efficiency are rarely discussed. These include the psychological benefits of using natural lighting sources, including making a home or office more comfortable, increasing worker productivity, or making a retail store more appealing to customers. Other benefits include healthier, better-ventilated buildings, food that stays fresher in more efficient refrigerators, and motors that run quieter. A study by the Rocky Mountain Institute showed that in efficient buildings, labor productivity rises by 6-16% due to the office being quieter, more comfortable, and with better air and lighting.

Energy Information Administration
Rocky Mountain Institute
Environmental Protection Agency

Who we are

Renewable Energy Alaska Project is a coalition of energy stakeholders working to facilitate the development of renewable energy in Alaska through collaboration, education, training, and advocacy.