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Energy Efficiency Still Has Room for Improvement

Improving energy efficiency is on everyone’s minds these days. However, it could actually be getting worse, not better, in the United States.

Lloyd Alter, managing editor and editor of design for TreeHugger, says that according to the Lawrence Livermore energy use graph, “Our energy systems are shockingly inefficient, with 71% of the energy we create being wasted. Getting it to zero is impossible, but there certainly is room for a lot of improvement. In fact we wasted 3.5 quads more in 2012 than we did in 2009. (A quad is a quadrillion British thermal units.)”

Though renewable resource use is up, making for a lighter carbon footprint, there are still problem areas where efficiency could improve. Transportation efficiency is the worst. “The idea of pushing a ton of metal to move 200 pounds of flesh is just insanely inefficient. This doesn't even account for the energy used in maintaining the infrastructure and building the roads; it is an inherently stupid way to design a transportation system,” says Alter.

Another problem on Alter’s list is energy efficient homes. “A lot of electricity and natural gas are going into our buildings and our industrial sector. But our residential and commercial buildings are going through their 20 quads at far higher efficiency. In fact, the biggest problem with our houses and buildings is their location, and the design of our communities that force people to burn 26.7 quads of energy just getting around to them. In 1970, transportation used just about the same as buildings; now it is 50% more. That's sprawl talking.”

Alter has some suggestions for decreasing energy consumption and increasing energy efficiency. Shop local, he says, encouraging any type of transportation that “moves more human and less iron.” He even suggests moving to a city that utilizes more renewable resources and also has milder weather to avoid using the air conditioner. But, most of all, it’s important to remember that “less really is more. Smaller cars, smaller houses on smaller lots, apartments instead of detached houses; smaller fridges; you can only increase efficiency so much; at some point we have to downsize our expectations.”