This was published a few weeks ago, but Joe Romm's Salon essay about energy efficiency is very much worth reading. The upshot is that if every state adopted the efficiency programs California has on the books, the country could slash electricity consumption by 40 percent and would never need to build a single new polluting power plant again—all without hiking electric bills. And this isn't "conservation" in the sense of forcing people to wear three sweaters in the winter or fry in August without air-conditioning:
Many of the strategies are obvious: better insulation, energy-efficient lighting, heating and cooling. But some of the strategies were unexpected. [California] found that the average residential air duct leaked 20 to 30 percent of the heated and cooled air it carried. It then required leakage rates below 6 percent, and every seventh new house is inspected.
The state found that in outdoor lighting for parking lots and streets, about 15 percent of the light was directed up, illuminating nothing but the sky. The state required new outdoor lighting to cut that to below 6 percent. Flat roofs on commercial buildings must be white, which reflects the sunlight and keeps the buildings cooler, reducing air-conditioning energy demands. The state subsidized high-efficiency LED traffic lights for cities that lacked the money, ultimately converting the entire state.
Naturally, there are upfront costs involved with inspecting air ducts and replacing streetlights, but most of these measures more than pay for themselves over the long haul. One particularly noteworthy strategy is "decoupling": At the moment, most public utilities earn profits based on how much electricity they sell, and lose money if people start remembering to turn off the lights and so forth. In California and a few other states, by contrast, utility revenues are no longer tied to energy usage, so utilities have incentives to reduce their load and get people to conserve.
A related idea, which Romm doesn't discuss, is getting people to use less energy when demand is at its apex—usually in the afternoon and evening. One futuristic solution is the "smart grid," in which home appliances would send and receive information about energy usage to and from a central hub, which might allow, for instance, laundry machines to shut off during peak hours and run when demand is lower. The city of Boulder is experimenting with this idea. (An even simpler first step would be for utilities to deploy "smart meters" that charge more for electricity during periods of peak demand, giving people incentives to shift their patterns—setting the delayed start on the dishwasher for 3 a.m., for instance.)
The savings could be fairly substantial: Nearly 14 percent of the country's 2,600 power plants are "peaking plants"—usually inefficient, expensive, and dirty gas turbines—that go online for just a few hours during the year. In theory, we could eliminate the need for most of them. But building a nationwide smart grid would require a decent-sized investment by the feds (the Energy Department says "one medium pizza per household per month, spread over 10 to 15 years"), and without proper coordination, utilities and appliance-makers won't want to take the first steps forward and risk developing technologies that later policies might render obsolete.