Energy Efficiency: The Cheapest Choice

By John McFerrin

There is no free lunch. Getting energy that we can use always has an environmental cost, including some release of greenhouse gasses. More solar energy strikes the earth every day than we humans could possibly use. While this solar energy may keep us from freezing to death and powers the plant life that makes all life on earth possible, it can’t meet many of our needs until humans need to turn it into electricity. Converting it into electricity takes equipment, solar panels, etc. There is always some cost to manufacture and install this equipment. While the environmental cost of producing electricity this way is small compared to alternatives such as coal, it is not zero.

The closest thing we have to a free lunch is conservation. While even that has an energy and environmental cost (double pane windows do not just jump up out of the ground, ready to install), the easiest and lowest cost step to solving the problem of pollution from energy production is to use less energy.  

One way to measure how efficiently we are producing and using energy is by measuring carbon dioxide emissions per person. Buildings are responsible for 35 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions in the United States. Since buildings are the biggest source of carbon dioxide emissions after transportation, measuring carbon dioxide per person associated with buildings in West Virginia is one measure of how we are doing.

By this measure, West Virginia is doing terribly. Buildings in West Virginia emit more carbon dioxide per person than buildings in all but two other states, Wyoming and North Dakota.  How much carbon dioxide is emitted depends upon both the source of power that heats and cools buildings and things such as insulation and the efficiency of the equipment. An efficient furnace in a snug house ends up emitting less carbon dioxide than an inefficient furnace in a drafty house. If that furnace is powered by a low carbon source, the house ends up emitting less carbon dioxide.

The states that beat out West Virginia for the title of most carbon dioxide per capita were states that are both cold and get their electricity from coal. Other cold places (Minnesota, for example) rank well behind West Virginia in carbon dioxide emissions. They get less of their electricity from coal.

So why is West Virginia one of the worst states in the nation in terms of carbon dioxide emitted by its buildings?

The overriding cause is attitude: we’re not even trying. Many states have goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Pennsylvania has a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2050; California has a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030; North Carolina hopes to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions below 50 percent of 2005 levels by 2030. In all, 25 states and the District of Columbia have set goals for limiting greenhouse gas emission targets.

West Virginia has not articulated a goal. From the most recent legislative session, it is apparent that our goal is to increase emissions. There was a bill to lower taxes on coal burned to produce electricity and another bill requiring that utility companies get approval from the Public Energy Authority before closing a coal fired power plant. Under other bills, a state agency would be tasked with finding sites for new coal or gas burning power plants.    

Meanwhile, the bill that would have decreased emissions by encouraging solar power by enabling community solar projects, was met with something between indifference and hostility.

As this is written the legislative session is not over yet. Nobody knows if the pro-carbon dioxide bills will pass. There is always the possibility that the legislature will have a Road to Damascus moment, embrace solar energy, and quit fighting to protect fossil fuels from the market forces that will eventually eliminate them. Don’t count on it. West Virginia’s obvious, if unarticulated goal will remain to increase carbon dioxide emissions.

A change in attitude is a years long project, maybe a generational thing. Maybe it could change in a few elections; we may have to settle for waiting for the current generation of politicians to die off.

Short of waiting for politicians to die off, there are a couple of things we could do. First, we could update our building codes to require more energy efficiency. The American Council on an Energy Efficient Economy has collected data on which states have the most effective building codes in promoting energy efficiency. West Virginia ranked 36th of the 50 states and the District of Columbia.       

While this is not bad when compared with most of our usual rankings, it is not great either. We could do better.

The fortunate thing is that there is now money available to help us do that. The United States Department of Energy has recently announced the availability of $45 million in grants to help states come up with building codes that promote energy efficiency. This comes from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that was passed in 2021. The Inflation Reduction Act, passed in 2022, has $1 billion to support states who want to adopt stronger energy codes.  

The need is there; the money is there to help us do it. The only thing standing in the way is our commitment to a policy of increasing carbon dioxide emissions.

The second thing we could do is require that our utility companies do more to help their customers use less energy. Our utilities are doing some things in this regard. They could do a lot more.

As a general matter, our public utilities are supposed to provide us with electricity and gas at a fair price. Our Public Service Commission exists to see that they do that. Historically, utilities have done this by building enough power plants to meet the demand. If demand went up, they would have to build more plants, run their existing plants more often, or do something to meet that demand.

Building more power plants is not, however, the only way to skin that cat. Utilities could meet their obligation by helping their customers use energy more efficiently and, in doing so, reduce demand. Reducing demand reduces our emissions of carbon dioxide.

The help could take the form of offering low-cost financing of efficiency improving equipment, giving away more efficient light bulbs, offering rebates for the installation of energy efficient equipment, etc. Such programs help consumers, reduce emissions, and (by eliminating the need to construct or buy power plants) can help the utility companies. Everybody wins.

It is not as if the West Virginia Public Service Commission and our utilities are doing nothing.  American Electric Power has a program that provides assistance for those who wish to become more energy efficient. First Energy (parent company to Mon Power), on the other hand, does nothing or next to nothing. It has demand reduction programs in other states served by other subsidiaries. It has nothing in West Virginia.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Other states have programs, mandated by their equivalent of our Public Service Commission, that require that utilities seek ways to reduce demand. We could have that, too, were it not for our apparent policy goal of increasing emissions of carbon dioxide.

There may be no such thing as a free lunch when it comes to reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Energy efficiency is as close as we can get. Only West Virginia’s adherence to its unstated goal of increasing emissions is preventing us from taking steps to increase energy efficiency.