Congress finds climate policy “sweet spot”in energy efficiency

Source: By Josh Siegel, Washington Examiner • Posted: Friday, July 19, 2019

Energy efficiency is having a moment on Capitol Hill, and is representative of low-hanging fruit climate change policy that could pass in a divided Congress.

The concept of using less energy in homes, at the office, and for industrial applications, is not new or controversial. That was the message from Senators Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio, and Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire, who re-introduced legislation Wednesday that would incentivize use energy efficiency in buildings, industry, and by the federal government.

“When we first introduced this legislation, Rob had black hair,” Shaheen said of Portman at a Capitol Hill press conference, making light of their failed previous attempts to pass versions of the Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act.

The Republican-controlled House stymied passage of the bill in prior congresses, but that could change with Democrats having power in the lower chamber.

“What we’re dealing with is low-hanging fruit,” said Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the top Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and another co-sponsor of the bill with Maine Republican Susan Collins. “If we can’t do this, God help climate change.”

Key business allies: Energy efficiency is also a snug fit with Republicans’ new embrace of “innovation” to address climate change, a term that’s been adopted by allied business trade groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The Chamber includes energy efficiency among the emissions-reduction policies it favors, along with spending on research and development on carbon capture and advanced nuclear. The group, like Republicans at large, opposes more comprehensive climate change policies that could make a bigger dent in emissions, such as a carbon tax or clean electricity mandate.

“Efficiency gains improve U.S. productivity, benefiting all sectors of our economy while simultaneously addressing climate change,” said Christopher Guith, acting president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Global Energy Institute.

Why efficiency matters: Residential and commercial buildings accounted for about 40% of total U.S. energy consumption in 2018, according to the Energy Information Administration, with the federal government being the largest single consumer of energy in the country. The commercial and residential sectors are responsible for 12% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, primarily from the burning of fossil fuels for heat, the EPA says.

That percentage is much smaller than the electricity sector, for example. But power sector emissions are falling due from the switch to gas and renewables, while emissions from homes and buildings are rising due to increased development and energy use.

“That’s why we need to double down on efficiency,” Charles Hernick, director of policy and advocacy for the conservative Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions, told me in an interview. “We need to make sure we are not being wasteful as we electrify more homes and buildings.”

Environmental groups like efficiency too.

“Study after study shows smarter energy use can help avert the worst effects of the climate crisis,” Grant Carlisle, clean energy advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told me.

What the new Senate bill does: The Portman-Shaheen bill would strengthen national building codes for homes and commercial buildings, encouraging states and private industry to adopt those standards (although they are voluntary) by creating a new grant program for homebuilders and contractors to build more efficiently.

It would direct the Energy Department to work with the private sector on R&D and commercialization of energy efficiency technologies that could be used in industrial applications.

And it establishes long-term energy and water efficiency goals for the federal government.

The House is on board with efficiency: Not to be outdone, the House Energy and Commerce Committee passed bills Wednesday to promote energy efficiency (see more details below).

“It’s the sweet spot,” Portman said of energy efficiency.