Efficiency is cheap, but will it sell?

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By Elisa Wood

September 24, 2009

Expect to see this number a lot in energy discussions over the next few years: 2.5 cents/kWh. It is the average cost of energy efficiency, a figure pegged this week in a new report by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. http://www.aceee.org/press/u092pr.htm.

This number is big news because it is so small.  As a resource, energy efficiency beats out all conventional power sources on price.  (See chart below.) Moreover, it’s a price that has been dropping. Five years ago energy efficiency cost 3 cents/kWh.

But just because something is cheap, doesn’t mean people will buy it. How much energy efficiency will make it into the nation’s energy shopping cart?

Efficiency boomed in the early 1990s, but then busted later in the decade when deregulation allowed many utilities to shed their efficiency programs. It is resurging now, part of push by state and federal policy makers to green and ‘smarten’ energy supply.

Most utilities do not make money on efficiency, and this is part of the reason it busted in the late 1990s. Perhaps as important, efficiency’s branding was off. It was seen as an extra, a nicety to pursue out of goodwill when a utility or state had some extra money.

ACEEE and other efficiency advocates are trying to reshape the image. They refer to efficiency as a fuel – just like wind, sun, coal, natural gas, oil. And they want efficiency to be the ‘first fuel.’ This means that when a utility is planning its energy supply, it first applies as much efficiency as is cost effective and plausible, before it builds more expensive new power. Some eastern states are already using this planning concept. In addition, many states have set specific energy efficiency goals, some very aggressive.

That is why ACEEE’s 2.5 cents/kWh becomes so important. It is a kind of marker against which other resources will find themselves competing more and more in policy planning.

Meanwhile, an increasing number of states are decoupling utility profits from kilowatthour sales or instituting other financial incentives that inspire utility support for efficiency.

Of course, our economy cannot prosper on efficiency alone, but many studies indicate we still have a lot of waste in the system.  So as an energy planner, if you were confronted with increased demand – and are not dealing with policy or system issues that require generation or transmission as a solution – which of these would you pursue first?

Resource Cost
Energy Efficiency 1.6 cents/kWh to 3.3 cents/kWh
Pulverized coal 7 cents/kWh to 14 cents/kWh
Combined cycle natural gas 7 cents/kWh to 10 cents/kWh
Wind energy 4 cents/kWh to 9 cents/kWh

Credit: Cost figures from ACEEE, “Saving Energy Cost Effectively: A National Review of the Cost of Energy Saved through  Utility Sector Energy Efficiency Programs,”  September 2009, http://www.aceee.org/press/u092pr.htm.

Visit Elisa Wood at http://www.realenergywriters.com/ and pick up her free Energy Efficiency Markets podcast and newsletter

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About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of MicrogridKnowledge.com. She has been writing about energy for more than three decades for top industry publications. Her work also has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.


  1. while it is true most states don’t make money off efficiency, the de-coupling model demonstrates that utilities can actually make MORE money off of efficiency than they do selling power.

    the CA utilities make substantially more money off of efficiency than they do selling power.

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