Energy Efficiency is the New Oil

As the debate wages on about how to spend the economic stimulus money, President-Elect Obama's talented picks for his energy and environmental czars underscore his commitment to solving the climate crisis. Finally, the welfare of our planet will be a priority again! Thanks to the new administration, alternative fuels, renewable energy and other "clean" technologies will likely get a healthy infusion of capital, representing good long-term strategies. This is great news. But we need to remind Congress that energy efficiency is still the cheapest, simplest way to put money back into people's pockets and meet environmental goals.

Dozens of visionary states have already set up successful programs, helping consumers and business owners improve their homes and facilities with insulation, equipment upgrades and other measures - all while lowering their energy bills and reducing carbon emissions. Sure, insulation may not be as glamorous as solar panels or wind turbines. But energy efficiency is the new oil. An ongoing strategy to fund and expand existing conservation programs should be a cornerstone of Obama's plan, not just a pebble on the path to a better energy future. A significant investment in these programs will continue to stimulate the economy long after the money is spent.

In other words, energy efficiency is the gift that keeps on giving.

The past two months have demonstrated the powerful impact of decreased demand on world energy prices. Reduced consumption has sent the price of oil plummeting from record highs. Demand has dropped by approximately five percent and world oil prices have tumbled from $150 to less than $50 per barrel. Just by increasing efficiency in homes and businesses, we can reduce energy consumption by an additional five percent. At the same time, because efficiency programs create jobs and lower people's bills, the stimulus will ripple through the economy in positive ways.

Remember "Drill, baby, drill"? Just a few short months ago, it was all the rage to call for drilling for new oil supplies in order to lower prices. But compare efficiency to drilling, and it's clear that we can save more oil by insulating and weatherizing homes in the Northeast than we could ever produce by drilling in the entire outer Continental shelf. And it provides results immediately, not ten years from now.

So a key component of any recovery package should be to expand existing energy efficiency programs. Most operate at the state level, but there are several excellent national efforts, such as the Federal low-income weatherization program and ENERGY STAR programs supported by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency. Together, these programs cost $2.5 billion per year, yielding energy savings of $600 million per year. Yet over a 10-year period, an investment of $2.5 billion produces more than $5 billion in consumer savings. That comes to a total of $7.5 billion in direct economic benefit - not even counting the value of lower energy prices.

Improvements to our homes, commercial buildings, and industrial facilities are already making a difference in our energy consumption. Investments in lighting upgrades, efficient heating and cooling systems, insulation, and better windows can lower energy costs by an average of 30 percent. But aside from the energy-cost savings to consumers and businesses, occupations that come from making buildings more efficient are more plentiful than any drilling or extraction program and last much longer. Jobs involve both entry- and advanced-level skills in everything from insulation contractors, to home energy auditors, to systems engineers.

A $3 billion investment in energy efficiency will immediately produce 50,000 jobs. The multiplier effect of lower energy costs could lead to as many as 100,000 additional positions, resulting from increased products and services that have become unburdened by staggering bills. Thousands of new jobs? What could be a better gift to the American people right now?

A fast and effective way to expand energy efficiency programs is to provide matching funds for existing state-managed programs and to expand the low- income weatherization program. Support for certification and training programs will spur employment in this sector. The best part about this strategy is that the infrastructure to deliver the efficiency dollars to homes and businesses already exists in nearly every state in the country.

President-elect Obama and Congress can save us from this recession. They can do this by ensuring that energy efficiency is a cornerstone of our economic recovery plan - a gift to the country that will keep on giving for years to come.

Mr. Stephen Cowell is the CEO of Conservation Services Group, a non profit energy services firm based in Mass., with 14 offices around the country. Mr. Cowell is also president of the Northeast Energy Efficiency Council and regularly provides Congressional testimony in Washington, D.C. on a wide range of topics, from decoupling and utility incentives to green job technology support. His firm was founded in 1984.