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Save money. Save the world.

Library Photo
February 23, 2015

By Dian Grueneich and Sam Borgeson

On February 9, State Senators Kevin deLeon and Mark Leno introduced SB 350: Golden State Standards 50-50-50. Their proposal mirrors the climate goals Gov. Jerry Brown announced last month: to use energy in buildings 50 percent more efficiently, to get 50 percent of California’s electricity from renewable sources, and to cut petroleum use 50 percent—all by 2030.

In the Energy Efficiency Next Level Project at Stanford University, we are focusing on the first goal—reducing energy use in buildings—by identifying the policy, technology and market paths to deliver affordable and reliable energy savings on an unprecedented scale.

Some people, even some who take global warming seriously, undoubtedly imagine future Saturday evenings at home reading by candlelight, then rising early from under a mountain of blankets to churn the butter, in order to meet these new goals.

But don’t buy that cow yet.

Intelligent energy efficiency is about innovation, not deprivation. Using energy more wisely depends on human actions. That happens on a large scale only when the actions make economic sense and do not lessen quality of life. Increasing the efficiency of existing homes and commercial buildings is not only crucial to addressing climate change. It will also create thousands of jobs and deliver billions of dollars in energy bill savings to fuel California’s economic growth.

Since 1974, efforts to save energy have benefited everyone in California, which has led the nation on this issue. The state ranks first, for example, in efficiency codes for buildings and gas mileage standards for cars. Unlike other states, Californians consume the same amount of electricity per person as we did 30 years ago, despite the explosion of personal computers, huge televisions and all the other electronics people enjoy. On average, every resident used about 1,900 kWh less in 2014 than they would have without the efficiency programs, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Efficiency 2.0

For a California family of four, that equates to cutting electric bills last year by more than $1,000. Fortunately, California and other states will continue to reap the low hanging fruit, like installing LED bulbs and efficient appliances and eliminating the waste of cooling empty homes while on vacation.

But how do we get to the next level? How, without hurting our economy or quality of life, do we power our workplaces and heat our homes while doubling energy efficiency? Hitting the proposed very high targets in just 15 years “will take great thought and imagination,” Gov. Brown said, and “require enormous innovation, research and investment.”

Some signposts point us toward this next generation of energy efficiency. In 2013, Berkeley Public Library built a state-of-the-art “West” branch that was to consume no more energy than it produced. Thanks to the latest solar technologies, the sun supplies the library with both electricity and heat. On the demand side, architects maximized natural light and ventilation, efficiency designs and materials.

The results? Over the past 12 months the library actually produced about 10 percent more energy than it consumed. And, it didn’t cost that much extra to build. Berkeley in 2013 also built a new “South” branch, more of a first generation-type energy efficiency building. The West branch cost just 3 percent more than the similarly-sized South branch and it doesn’t get a monthly energy bill.

The technical skills, like understanding computational fluid dynamics, required to design, build and operate a building that economically produces all the energy it needs are impressive. They are also in short supply, but with results like this one can imagine many high-value jobs created for architects, engineers, construction workers and custodians.

An even larger job creator and energy saver will be retrofitting and improving operations at existing buildings to reduce energy use. Advances in information technology, data analytics, communications, sensors and controls, many of which have been pioneered in California, will fuel these efforts. The features that enable a typical smartphone—digital communications, low-power computing, LEDs, sensors and software—are finding their way into home appliances, heating and air-conditioning systems, and the electric grid.

Researchers are using advanced analytics of data from California’s multibillion-dollar investment in smart meters to understand patterns of energy use—and pinpoint waste—in unprecedented detail. This knowledge will help utilities and others plan better efficiency programs, help customers identify new low-cost savings, and help contractors quickly diagnose and fix problems that previously would have lingered. PG&E and Adobe, for example, recently used data from real-time electric meters to identify a problem with a chiller in the oldest tower at Adobe’s headquarters in San Jose. Analyzing and solving the problem cost $1,200. The fix is saving 300,000 kilowatt-hours and $43,000 a year!

Such examples aside, much needs to be learned about how to equip and inspire people to use energy more wisely. Last year, we started a new initiative at Stanford University focused on getting energy efficiency to the next level. Boosting our annual efficiency gains from a little under 1 percent a year to the 2 percent now targeted will be very challenging. And, achieving the ultimate goal of slashing California’s greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050 will probably demand an even greater pace of efficiency gains than that. Of course, the answers will require innovations from places beyond a single institution, so we are working in collaboration with researchers, policymakers and experts from around the world.

Meeting these new goals will require new technologies and policies that can deliver efficiency savings far beyond historical levels. That will involve, to quote Gov. Brown again, "active collaboration at every stage with our scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, businesses and officials at all levels." For the sake of the environment and the economy, we applaud his call to action.

A former commissioner with the California Public Utilities Commission, Dian Grueneich is a senior research scholar at Stanford’s Precourt Energy Efficiency Center and at the Hoover Institution. Sam Borgeson, PhD, is a senior research scientist at the Stanford Sustainable Systems Lab.

To learn more about Stanford University’s Energy Efficiency Next Level Project, contact Dian Grueneich, the project leader, at