Energy efficiency in the US: tracking legislative advances and overall progress

“Climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it”, said Barack Obama during his January 2015 State of the Union Address. The US is the world’s second largest polluting country and emits more than 5,000 billion tons of CO2 every year; it must therefore encourage progress towards more energy efficiency.

Meaningful strides toward improving energy efficiency at federal level

Negotiations are speeding up in the run-up to the Paris COP21 conference in December, making 2015 a crucial year for global climate. Against a backdrop of political tension, Barack Obama brings all his leadership to bear on the energy efficiency challenge. During the first quarter of 2015, he said he wanted to foster solar energy, thus creating jobs (the solar industry relies on 20 times more jobs than the average). In January 2015, there were an estimated 175,000 solar workers; the President’s goal is to expand the workforce by 75,000 by 2020.

The federal government also seeks to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 40% over the next decade from 2008 levels. This will include reducing energy use in federal buildings by 2.5% every year between 2015 and 2025. Barack Obama has also been pursuing an assertive energy policy at the international level. In November 2014, the US signed an agreement with China whereby it pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25 to 28% from 2005 levels. This agreement in a major step forward in US energy policy; previous commitments aimed only at a 17% emission reduction between 2005 and 2020[i].

The US Congress has been actively involved in the energy efficiency debate since March 2015, with two bills currently on the floor: on March 27th, the Senate adopted the Energy efficiency improvement Act[ii]; the Energy savings and industrial competitiveness bill is currently being discussed in committee. Both texts focus on energy efficiency in buildings, among other things.

Also at the federal level, the ACEEE (American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy) has been acting as a catalyser in energy policy since its creation in 1980. It conducts studies that form the basis for government action and can also influence the daily energy consumption of US citizens. For instance, in 2015 it opened two websites that help consumers increase energy efficiency in their homes and cars.

Progress hampered by political deadlock at federal level versus achievements at local level

The aforementioned bills were introduced by Senators Jeanne Shaheen (Democrat) and Rob Portman (Republican) against a backdrop of political tension. Although Democrats have sometimes instigated debates on such issues, the Congress has a long track record of ignoring energy efficiency and climate-related problems.

Such bipartisan bills, however, show that there is mounting interest in and consensus on these matters in America. Nevertheless, the Energy efficiency improvement Act has been significantly diluted: it was rejected four times in four years (in May 2014 for the last time) and was therefore the subject of a political compromise[iii]. The related Keystone XL pipeline project was vetoed by the President, and the veto was not overridden[iv]. There are thus grounds for concern that the bill could never be signed into law for political reasons.

As for the 2015 Act, it amends the 2007 Energy independence and security Act in order to take “separate spaces” into account, i.e. areas within a commercial building that are leased by a tenant and where energy efficiency must be improved (e.g. by the use of better construction materials or renewable energy sources). The act provides for the creation of the Tenant Star programme, which helps the federal government gather data in order to improve energy efficiency. This programme also aims at certifying low-energy areas. As for the Energy savings and industrial competitiveness bill, it amends provisions of the 1975 Energy conservation and production Act (revised in 2014) and seeks to promote energy savings in residential and industrial buildings. However, it is uncertain whether it will make it out of Congress.

Increased energy efficiency must therefore be implemented at the state level. Every year, the ACEEE takes stock of political progress achieved in each of the 50 states regarding energy efficiency and energy savings. Its Energy Efficiency Resource Standard draws a list of states which are striving to cut their electricity and gas consumption (24 out of 50). Some states, such as Arizona, do not consider energy efficiency a priority, whereas others are drivers of the energy transition effort. For instance, the city of Fort Collins (Colorado) adopted an ambitious plan aiming at cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2030 and reaching the zero net carbon target by 2050. To that end, the city promotes clean energy sources (including in automobiles) and renewables (solar). The municipality contributes significantly and must therefore rethink itself, for example by using new business models.

A recent study found that Americans wish to improve energy efficiency, particularly in their homes: 12% intend to buy a smart thermostat and 56% of landlords plan to opt for LED lighting. Besides, 4% of landlords want to acquire an electric vehicle. To sum up, meaningful advances have been made on the legislative level, but above all in terms of the behaviours of politicians and consumers alike.


[i] Actu Environnement

[ii] See Energy Efficiency Improvement Act and Energy Savings and industrial competitiveness Act

[iii] Smartgrid News : Less ambitious energy efficiency bill introduced in Senate

[iv] Congress can override the veto by a two-thirds vote in each of both houses

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