Energy Efficiency Progress: What We’ve Gained in 35 Years

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You would have $2,500 less in your pocket if it weren’t for energy efficiency progress over the last 35 years in the United States.

That’s one of the findings in a new report by the America Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, “Energy Efficiency in the United States: 35 Years and Counting,” by Steven Nadel, Neal Elliott, and Therese Langer.

The research organization chose to review the time period because that’s how long it has been in business.

Energy efficiency saved consumers and businesses $800 billion last year, which amounts to $2,500 per capita.

That’s one way to look at the energy efficiency progress we’ve made, as the US greened buildings, upgraded lighting, wasted less heat, improved its HVAC, changed energy behavior, began driving more fuel efficient cars, and saved energy in other ways.

Here are a few other encouraging findings from the report.

The economy grew a lot over the time period; energy use did not, indicating we truly learned to do more with less.  Gross domestic product (GDP) increased by 149 percent from 1980 through 2014; energy use by only 29 percent.

Correspondingly, energy intensity — the energy used per dollar of GDP — declined by 50 percent. The energy efficiency industry can’t take all of the credit. Another factor was the shift to a more service-oriented, less manufacturing centered economy. But energy efficiency accounted for about 60 percent of the change — and that’s a conservative estimate, according to ACEEE.

Any magic bullets? Not really. ACEEE cites “many small and large gains,” among them:

  • The energy use of new clothes washers has declined by more than 70 percent.
  • The energy use of new homes per square foot has declined by nearly 20 percent
  • Industrial energy use per unit value of product is down by nearly 40 percent.
  • The fuel economy of passenger vehicles has improved by more than 25 percent.
  • Energy losses in our electric transmission and distribution system have declined by more than 25 percent.

So a great deal has been achieved. Are we there yet?

Far from it. Opportunities still exist to more than double the amount of energy saved over the last 35 years, says ACEEE. To reach this goal, the US needs to better harness and transform markets, interweave energy efficiency into the utility of the future, and expand government efforts, according to the report.

It’s a $10 trillion opportunity. That’s how much the US can still lower its energy bills.

Political policy will help or hinder future progress.  So far, both parties have supported energy efficiency with major laws signed in the Ford, Carter, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush administrations.

Still the report worries that recent years have brought about some political bristling, especially about government investment. “Efficiency-related items the two parties can agree on have become more limited,” the report says.

ACEEE has created a tremendous body of research over 35 years that shows the economic and environmental benefits of energy efficiency. But innovation continues as smart and local energy gains importance and the U.S. takes a serious look at carbon dioxide reductions. Meanwhile, politics moves ever more slowly. So happy birthday, ACEEE. Take a minute to blow out the candles. But then keep the good research coming.

What do you see the next 35 years bringing in energy efficiency progress? How will technology change the landscape? Comment below or on our LinkedIn Group, Energy Efficiency Markets.

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About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of 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. Elisa, I agree that there’s still a lot of opportunity to improve & we must because we can’t continue using a disproportionate amount of energy compared to the rest of the world. I write about energy efficiency a lot, to educate homeowners on how to make their homes work more efficiently (almost 100 articles at I get frustrated that there are any good references showing savings in residential buildings. I’d love to show things like 30% of today’s refrigerators are inefficient, and using more energy than newer 70% … to get people to dispose of these appliances versus going from one to 2 refrigerators (had a friend with 4 frig/freezers).

    Any help you can provide so I can find &n use this info appreciated

    The energy use of new clothes washers has declined by more than 70 percent.
    The energy use of new homes per square foot has declined by nearly 20 percent

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