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Energy Bookshelf: The power of invisible energy

August 4th, 2010 · 11 Comments

Efficiency is the ugly stepchild of the energy and climate world.

Recently, I put solar on my roof. Many neighbors and friends are excited about trying to do the same. When I hear this from them, the advice: make sure that your home is energy efficient before putting a penny into something like solar power or a generator. On emphasizing this to one friend, the response, “I know that but insulation isn’t sexy.”

It might not be sexy, but efficiency is powerful.

In Invisible Energy, NRDC’s David Goldstein lays out a strong case why our national policy should be that of the home: first, second, and third priority should be energy efficiency and then clean energy (renewable energy) can meet the reduced energy demands. To be blunt, Goldstein is one of the voices to listen to in this arena. He is the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) Energy Program Director, a MacArthur (“genius award”) Fellow, has worked closely with California’s Energy Commission for decades, and has a plethora of other engagements both international and domestic.  And, these varied experiences weave together to inform the book and its insights.

Invisible Energy is filled with important insights and policy recommendations. The key point is that, systematically, energy efficiency is low-balled in terms of just how much an impact it could have in improving the economy and helping to mitigate climate change. Goldstein works through how our analysis and decision-making patterns drive to a ‘worst-case’ on energy efficiency which, almost, becomes reinforcing. Modeling assumes zero technology improvement, targets are set low, etc … On the other hand, he provides clear thoughts for how to break through these barriers and a vision for how we could be improve our energy efficiency by upwards of eight percent per year.

As an example of an interesting discussion, Goldstein asserts that the barriers to greater energy efficiency are not just “market barriers” but provides a set of causes with explanation:

  • Market barriers are where direct institutional changes will allow the market to function properly. Split incentives, such as between landlord and tenant about investing in energy efficiency when the tenant pays the utilities, provides an example.
  • Market failures are where a complex interplay of factors leads to downplaying energy issues amid a broader set of investment choices when there is diffuse decision-making.
  • Human failures include, for example, our basic nature such as loss aversion and status quo bias inhibit action. Also, with limited decision-making time, the ‘marginal’ energy efficiency items often aren’t the management’s highest priority.
  • Institutional Failures occur to regulations, business structures, and other patterns that inhibit energy efficient choices.

No, it is not just “the market” that has failed, but ourselves and our institutions — the obstacles are complex and interrelated.

Some minor problems

Invisible Energy didn’t preach to this choir, but educated. There is much that I “knew”, with Goldstein adding detail and perspective. But there was much new to the table or, perhaps as importantly, given reinforcement to highlight importance.  While tremendous, Invisible Energy is not faultless. Goldstein, quite legitimately, focuses on energy efficiency and spends very little energy on renewable resources because “energy efficiency merits greater attention among decision-makers and by the public.”  He is right that pursuing energy efficiency will make it easier and less costly to cover a greater share of our energy requirements with renewables. He, however, makes an avoidable mistake when discussing this in commentating that “in more optimistic cases, renewable sources become cheaper than business-as-usual.”  I have to disagree — considering the climate, health, and other costs of fossil-foolish practices, any honest accounting would show that renewable energy is already “cheaper than business-as-usual”.  Such discord, however, was rare in reading pages — the far more frequent experience was nodding up and down in agreement, highlighting insightful points, and marking up references worth looking at for further detail.

A glance at two items

Let’s look at two items in a little more detail:

  • how efficiency relates to our housing financing; and,
  • the poster child for energy efficiency.

The mortgage failure

The financial approach to home ownership fosters a far more energy-inefficient way of life for individuals, communities, and the nation. This, of course, includes the mortgage deduction that enables ever-larger homes but, less obviously to many, how the banking system undermines its own strength through failure to consider efficiency in loan decisions and how this drives ever expanding suburbia and exurbia.  When purchasing a home, in brief, a lender considers your income and the cost to buy the home.  What they fail to consider are two critical measures that have a significant impact on long-term ability to pay that mortgage: energy efficiency and location efficiency.

  • Energy Efficiency is rather straightforward: how efficient is the house system in terms of energy (and, well, water) usage.  An old home with bad insulation, leaky windows, and decrepit appliances will cost more to heat and cool than a home built to modern standards.  And, a house built to Energy Star (or, even better, passivhaus) standards will have even lower heating and cooling bills. While there are mortgages that relate to energy efficiency, this is mainly in theory as most lenders simply aren’t aware of them.  A homeowner with a more energy efficient house, which costs $1000 less per year in heating/cooling bills, will have more money available to pay the mortgage. And, this is seen in actual default rates as the more energy efficient the home, the lower default rate.  Sadly, essentially no lenders take house energy efficiency into account when making lending decisions.
  • Location Efficiency is also straightforward but rarely discussed item that never makes it into the mortgage lending decision.  This relates to walkability but is, in essence, how much will you need to drive to get to work, get to the grocery, to live …  “After a mortgage, owning and driving vehicles is the second highest household expense, and people who live in a walkable neighborhood near shops and schools can save serious money each year. That makes the “drive ‘til you qualify” mindset as outdated as buying a gas-guzzling SUV.”  As Goldstein and colleagues documented earlier this year, there is a very strong correlation between location efficiency and default rates. More that “gas-guzzling SUV” is required, the higher the chance of default.

Yet, the bankers ignore these factors and this contributed to the housing bubble.  Consider the numbers.

for a typical new home, which is now priced at about $178,000 (median price), the cost of driving to and from the home over the course of a 30-year mortgage exceeds $300,000 for homes located in sprawl and the energy costs exceed $75,000 on average.

It seemed evident that a system designed to look only at the ability of the borrower to pay back the $178,000 or so loan but that ignored the affordability of the $375,000 commitment to transportation and utility costs was bound to go wrong.

A key path forward for a stronger mortgage loan program: including energy efficiency and location efficiency in decision-making about loan qualification and loan rates. These should not be stove-piped decisions, excluding easily calculable costs impacting buyers’ ability to pay, but should be more realistic “total cost of ownership” calculations.  Now, that house 30 miles outside the city isn’t “cheaper” than that house a bike ride from the office: it might be cheaper to own while being much, much more expensive to own.  Including energy and location efficiency in loan programs would help reduce default rates. It would also likely improve home lives, as less time would be spent in the car. And, oh by the way, it would have a real (and cumulative) impact on our energy usage — helping steer Americans toward more cost sensible and less fossil-foolish housing choices.

Energy Efficiency’s poster child: the refrigerator

In 1973, refrigerators were the largest single use of electricity in the home and the demand had been growing at 9.5% per year since WWII. Energy efficiency had been declining as manufacturers sought to cut costs. Utility planners had, at that time, carved out a 9.5% growth rate in refrigeration power demand indefinitely. In the face of the oil embargo, California began to drive standards that were followed by five state and national standards (Energy Star as latest round). In 1972, the average refrigerator used about 2000 kilowatt hours / year. Today, with ice makers & water cooling & increased average size & inefficient side-by-side models, the average refrigerator uses under 500 kwh/year. And, by the way, in current dollar terms, the price of refrigerators has dropped per cubic foot in part because the requirements for energy efficiency have led manufacturers to redo production lines & drive improved efficiency in construction.

This is a very straightforward example of the power of government regulation to drive reduced energy usage and save consumers money. As Secretary of Energy Steve Chu discussed the other day, writing regulation and setting standards are (without exception) the lowest cost move with the highest payoff to the economy that the Department of Energy can pursue. Speaking of libertarians like Bryce, Chu commented that there are economists that will account, as a value, the reduced freedom of choice due to tightening standards. To this, Secretary Chu noted that

Forcing people to save is a cost that I am willing to bear. We’re going to enforce standards

This is the type of understanding of and allegiance to the power of energy efficiency and government’s role in promoting that Goldstein is looking for … while Chu might not have read Invisible Energy, he certainly has a grasp of the key issues.  What we need, as a nation, is for more of our policy-makers to emulate Chu’s understanding.  Goldstein’s Invisible Energy should not be on the bookshelf, but required reading for every member of Congress and for their staffs. The banking community should read it. And … well, the list is long — Goldstein’s credentials promise much and, with this book, he delivers.


The real “genius” in the MacArthur Program is that by providing a half million dollar grant, they get people’s attention. The biggest difference in my career since the MacArthur Fellowship is that I find my opinions get taken more seriously by people who would otherwise be skeptical or even dismissive. Presenting a message about energy efficiency as a MacArthur Fellow has meant that policymakers cannot simply dismiss the arguments, as some had done previously, but are more inclined to listen seriously to what I have to say. And the case for energy efficiency is so compelling that once people open their minds it is easier to achieve advocacy success.

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Tags: Energy · energy bookshelf · energy efficiency

11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Energy Bookshelf: A power hungry gushing of lies // Aug 16, 2010 at 4:36 pm

    […] attacks regulation, in multiple levels. A poster child for energy efficiency is the refrigerator. In 1973, refrigerators were the largest single use of electricity in the home and the demand had […]

  • 2 TLC // Aug 25, 2010 at 9:23 pm

    […] behind the scenes. For example, standards are incredibly important to improving energy efficiency (invisible energy). Refrigerators have fallen from 2000 kilowatt hours/year 40 years ago to an average of about 500 […]

  • 3 Efficiency of refrigerator // Aug 31, 2010 at 5:55 am

    The concerns for climate change is given a high priority today. Whether its a home or a mall or industrial set up, all the appliances are installed keeping in mind how they affect our environment.

    But I personally feel that not all follow this rule. Some are still profit minded. They need to change their mind set. In fact going energy efficient should yield higher profits than they actually incur.

  • 4 Addressing home affordability through efficiency in financing process // Oct 15, 2010 at 11:19 am

    […] to wasteful U.S. energy practices, to Americans’ heavy carbon footprints — is the absence of efficiency from the home financing process. The home financing guidance from the heavy-weights (the Fannies) doesn’t take efficiency […]

  • 5 Energy BOOKSHELF: “Crossing the Energy Divide” from inanity to sanity // Mar 22, 2011 at 9:02 pm

    […] boom took place in the buildings and industry sectors.” Despite these real achievements, tremendous room exists for increased efficiency.  And, those are high payoff opportunities: “efficiency investments are generally low in […]

  • 6 Win the Future with Real Solutions // Apr 1, 2011 at 9:18 am

    […] The “negawatt” and “negagallon” (the energy we don’t use — Invisible Energy) is the least expensive incremental power source available in the United States (and much of the […]

  • 7 Someone (the bank) should have told them … // Apr 11, 2011 at 9:13 pm

    […] American financial system ignores location efficiency in determining mortgage eligibility. Location (and energy) Efficiency is a key criteria for […]

  • 8 President Obama giving “Godfather” a medal // Feb 1, 2013 at 11:00 am

    […] to enable future advances. He is, quite simply, one of the greatest achievers/heros of ‘invisible energy‘ and his quite tangible achievements remain invisible to most […]

  • 9 Energy Efficiency in Financing Process Supports Housing Affordability - CleanTechies // Mar 16, 2014 at 6:24 pm

    […] There are a myriad of ways in which the U.S. home mortgage system is weak – even broken. The extent of the housing bubble to the shoddy paperwork (and, in too many cases, outright fraud) in foreclosures are just two minor little examples of the problems we face. One contributing factor — to the housing bubble, to foreclosure rates, to wasteful U.S. energy practices, to Americans’ heavy carbon footprints — is the absence of efficiency from the home financing process. […]

  • 10 Mythbusting | Sense & Sustainability // Jan 26, 2015 at 2:59 pm

    […] energy future won’t be seamless. However, much of the change can be for the better. Think ‘invisible energy‘.  A few decades ago, the average refrigerator used 1750 kilowatt hours per year. Now — with […]

  • 11 Energy Efficiency in Financing Process Supports Housing Affordability - CleanTechies // Jun 19, 2015 at 10:30 am

    […] There are a myriad of ways in which the U.S. home mortgage system is weak – even broken. The extent of the housing bubble to the shoddy paperwork (and, in too many cases, outright fraud) in foreclosures are just two minor little examples of the problems we face. One contributing factor — to the housing bubble, to foreclosure rates, to wasteful U.S. energy practices, to Americans’ heavy carbon footprints — is the absence of efficiency from the home financing process. […]