Can the US cut its energy use in half by 2050? Yes, but we will have to double down on our efforts.

Blog | December 07, 2016 - 10:00 am
By Steven Nadel , Executive Director

Five years ago, ACEEE found that energy efficiency could reduce projected 2050 US energy use by 40–60%. As a result, ACEEE established a strategic goal to reduce projected 2050 energy use by 50%. We thought it was time to check on our progress and ask whether our goal still seems reasonable. We find that energy use has been stable in recent years, reversing historical growth, a very positive development that is due in significant part to increasing our energy efficiency. But if we want actual declines in energy use, we will need to double down on our efforts.

We also thought it would be useful to look at potential savings in terms of cost-effective efficiency policies in order to more clearly outline what needs to be done to reach this 2050 goal. So today we release a new white paper with the results of our new analysis. These energy savings are important, because they can save the nation billions in energy bills, create domestic jobs, protect the environment, and yield numerous other benefits.

Thirteen policies we’ll need to ramp up

We applied 13 efficiency packages to the reference case projection of future energy consumption in the 2016 Annual Energy Outlook (2016 AEO), prepared by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (EIA). The packages are:

  • Appliance and equipment efficiency standards and complementary voluntary efforts
  • Zero net energy (ZNE) new buildings and homes
  • Smart buildings and homes
  • Home and commercial building retrofits
  • Behavior change in buildings
  • Industrial efficiency improvements
  • Combined heat and power (CHP) systems
  • Light and heavy duty vehicle fuel economy improvements
  • Reductions in passenger vehicle miles traveled (VMT)
  • Reductions in freight transport energy use
  • Aviation efficiency improvements
  • Reductions in losses from transmission and distribution (T&D) systems
  • Electric power plant efficiency improvements

Our analysis accounts for both overlap between measures, and direct and indirect rebound effects.

Lots of energy can be saved

We find that our 13 energy efficiency packages would reduce 2040 energy use by 34%. These 2040 energy savings put us on a path to achieve the 50% energy savings by our 2050 goal. We also looked at carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, finding that 2040 CO2 emissions would be reduced by 35% relative to the 2040 business-as-usual scenario, and also put carbon emissions on a 50% reduction path by 2050. These trends are illustrated in the figure below, which shows essentially flat energy use and emissions in the reference case but declining energy use and emissions in the energy efficiency case.

Energy and emissions reductions exist in all sectors of the economy—residential, commercial, industrial, transportation, and electric power. Savings and emissions reductions from our efficiency policies are largest in the transportation sector, followed closely by the commercial, industrial, and residential sectors. Transportation measures generally contribute a higher percentage to emissions reductions than to energy use reductions due to the relatively high carbon content of most transportation fuels.

Each of the 13 packages we examined contributes to putting us on the 50% energy use reduction path. The largest savings come from the industrial efficiency package, followed by ZNE new homes and buildings, vehicle fuel economy improvements, appliance and equipment efficiency, and home and commercial building retrofits.

We can get there, but will we?

Our analysis finds that the 13 efficiency measures we examine, if pursued aggressively, would put the United States on a path to reduce 2050 energy use by 50% relative to currently predicted levels. Achieving these energy efficiency savings will require expansion of energy efficiency efforts beyond business-as-usual, including:

  • New building codes, equipment efficiency standards, and ENERGY STAR® specifications
  • Substantial improvements to existing factories, homes, commercial buildings, T&D systems, and power plants
  • Efforts to better manage freight and aviation energy use, reduce VMT, and spur changes in how individuals use energy at home, at work, and in transport.

We must rigorously pursue all of these energy efficiency policy opportunities if we are to achieve these potential energy efficiency savings. We must also continue to invest in research and development to identify new efficiency measures; these will provide additional savings opportunities that we can only imagine today and that will complement the examined measures.

One may ask: will we actually put the policies in place to achieve these savings? Time will tell, but reducing energy waste is always a smart decision. Both Democratic and Republican administrations have taken actions to increase our nation’s efficiency. And while President-elect Donald Trump has focused on increasing fossil fuel production, he has also promised to strengthen our economy and create millions of domestic jobs. By taking these efficiency steps, the next President can make good on those promises. In addition, much of the action needed will take place at the state, local, business, and household levels. Washington can assist, but these other actors are critical.