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Next up in Energy Efficiency

In January, Gov. Jerry Brown announced a goal for Californians to double through 2030 the planned level of savings from energy efficiency improvements.

In January, Gov. Jerry Brown announced a goal for Californians to double through 2030 the planned level of savings from energy efficiency improvements in existing buildings. Hitting this ambitious target “will take great thought and imagination,” the governor said, and “require enormous innovation, research and investment.”

California has been an international leader on energy efficiency since 1974. When California first began its energy efficiency efforts to avoid a forecasted need to build new power plants every 50 miles along the state’s coast, many were skeptical because no one had ever tried systematically reducing energy use.

Dian Grueneich

Forty years later, California’s success is recognized. The state ranks first in efficiency codes for buildings and gas mileage standards for cars. Unlike other states, Californians consume the same amount of electricity per person as they did 30 years ago, despite larger homes and the explosion of personal computers, giant televisions, and numerous other electronics.

But how will California get to the next level? How, without hurting California’s economy or quality of life, can the state power its workplaces and heat its homes while doubling energy efficiency?

Achieving even California’s existing goals for energy efficiency poses dramatic challenges. The governor’s new goal is unprecedented and the scope of effort required is enormous. Business as usual, even with expanded resources, will not succeed.

Doubling Energy Savings

The good news is that advances in information technology, data analytics, communications, sensors and controls, and increased understanding of customer behavior, can deliver the forecasted savings. The features that enable a typical smartphone—digital communications, LEDs, sensors and software—are finding their way into home appliances, heating and air-conditioning systems, and the electric grid.

Researchers are using advanced data analytics from California’s multi-billion dollar investment in smart meters to understand patterns of energy use—pinpointing waste—in unprecedented detail. This knowledge will help customers identify new low-cost savings, help utilities and others plan, implement, and track programs, and help contractors quickly diagnose and fix problems that previously would have lingered.

However, much of energy efficiency is driven by mandatory requirements and customer-funded programs set by state regulators. Government actions overseeing these efforts must be streamlined and coordinated.  Key rules governing customer-funded efficiency programs must be updated to embrace new technologies and deep savings approaches, including savings below code levels and behaviorally driven savings. New approaches focused on whole building energy usage and carbon emissions and valuing the role of demand side in addressing grid needs must be implemented.

Last year, Stanford University launched a multi-year project, “Energy Efficiency: The Next Level,” to help develop a policy framework for the next generation of energy efficiency to mobilize and deliver energy savings at levels far beyond historical practice and to understand energy efficiency's role and value in an evolving electric grid and market.

Initial research is producing a detailed report on “Challenges, Opportunities, and New Tools for The Next Level of Energy Efficiency”, which will be publicly available later this summer.

Dian Grueneich, a former member of the California Public Utilities Commission, is a senior research scholar at Stanford University.

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