Energy efficiency: Red, blue or happily neither?

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Elisa WoodBy Elisa Wood
October 11, 2012

We’re so politically polarized about energy, it’s news when we’re not.

Exceptions exist, of course, but generally one side identifies with fossil fuels, the other with renewable energy. And energy efficiency seems to be the lucky orphan left out of the pick.

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy talked about this unique positioning last week when it released its annual state ranking for energy efficiency. True, the top states are blue: Massachusetts, California, New York, Oregon, and Vermont. But look at the states moving up the line most quickly.


“These findings show that energy efficiency is being embraced by Republicans and Democrats alike at the state level,” said Steven Nadel, ACEEE executive director. “That nonpartisan status is crucial because too many conversations about U.S. energy policy begin with the false premise that the only way to safeguard our reliable energy future is to expand our supply. While some supply investments will be needed, the truth is that step one should always be energy efficiency, our cheapest, cleanest, and fastest energy resource.”

Advocates of combined heat and power noted a similar phenomenon at the US Combined Heat and Power Association’s  annual meeting in Washington, DC last week. (CHP, a highly efficient although somewhat obscure technology, makes up 12 percent of US electric capacity.)

“The issues related to CHP on both tickets are the same when you look at energy independence, clean energy, energy security – all the things that CHP brings to the energy debate. So regardless of how the election turns out, we should continue to see a bright future for CHP,” said Joe Allen, USCHPA chairman and Solar Turbines director of government affairs.

Perhaps energy efficiency escapes partisan titles because it is technology neutral – we can save any kind of energy.  Massachusetts is number one for the second year in ACEEE’s ranking largely because of its Green Communities Act, legislation enacted in 2008 that boosted renewable energy and sustainable practices. In contrast, Oklahoma is rising quickly in the ranking, partly because of its natural gas efficiency programs. Oklahoma also significantly increased its electric energy efficiency budget and upped its energy savings, as did Montana and South Carolina.

Other policies that are neither green nor blue also boosted efficiency in states. For example, 24 states now have portfolio standards, targets to achieve a certain amount of energy savings by a prescribed date. Arizona, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota,  New York, Rhode Island and Vermont have the most aggressive portfolio standards, according to ACEEE.  (On the national level, various pieces of legislation propose national efficiency portfolio standards, but Congress has taken no action on them.)

While the nation may face a stalemate on many issues, it does not on energy efficiency. The resource is growing rapidly. Utility energy efficiency budgets were $7 billion in 2011, a 27% increase over the previous year. Meanwhile, energy savings increased 40% from customer-funded efficiency programs to 18 million MWh, roughly equivalent to the electricity Wyoming uses each year, according to ACEEE.

Massachusetts’ held the top position for the second year because many parties sat at the table and worked together, according Jeremy McDiarmid,  Massachusetts director for Environment Northeast, an organization that has played a key role helping the state develop energy efficiency policies.

Such cooperation is hard to find on the national energy scene. Still, energy efficiency, at least, appears to be welcome at almost any table, when and if, the parties finally gather.

Elisa Wood is a long-time energy writer. Subscribe to her free energy efficiency newsletter at

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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. Great points, Elisa. Such an important and timely discussion. Will be interesting to see what the next year holds!

  2. Elisa,
    I like the idea of identifying energy efficiency as a politically neutral proposition.

    You note one party identified with fossil fuels, the other with renewable energy. That characterization seems to cloak a bias. I could be wrong. I see the divide more clearly when I think of market justifiable projects versus government subsidized projects. Perhaps this also cloaks a bias.

    Discussions on energy have most of the air time going to ‘renewables’. Maybe that’s an enthusiasm for the NEW. I wonder why conservation (aka energy efficiency) doesn’t share the limelight if it can be shown to be superior in impact and payback? Also, why do we rank energy efficiency by STATE? This would seem to reinforce the blue/red divide and posture energy efficiency as somehow governmental. Why not rank PROJECTS by efficiency or payback or whatever. IE: let the projects be the heroes, not the States.

    Question: Which is best for energy efficiency, payback, environmental payback, etc. : Solar screens, functional shutters, awnings, or solar grates? Do we even have comparative data on projects which deflect infrared gain and the air conditioning load resulting?

    Question: Why will Utilities gladly take command of your electric supply during summer peak periods, yet not even mention to customers that shutters will help prevent the peaks in the first place and save customers $ ? Where do the Public Utility Commissions stand on this question?

    Homes and commercial buildings aren’t like cars. A car is replaced every few years. A building is around a long time. We need projects that make older buildings more efficient too.