The Next 100 Days, Part 2: Bring on the Sizzle

It is time for President Obama to mobilize us all to help build the new energy economy. The “clean energy FDR” has begun shaping the public policies we need with a history-making first 100 days. Now he needs to launch an interstate highway project, Marshall Plan, and war effort all rolled into one.

For starters, he should call on us all to pick up our caulking guns and enlist in the war against energy waste – a national clean energy surge.

Efficiency improvements and conservation have been America’s main source of energy since 1973, according to the Alliance to Save Energy. Yet, the potential for more savings is enormous. As Obama noted during the campaign, the United States is only the 22nd most energy-efficiency major economy in the world. With very few exceptions, every vehicle, home, power plant, factory, community and state is hemorrhaging energy, energy dollars and greenhouse gas emissions. Consider just a few examples:


  • We lose massive amounts of energy as electricity is generated and distributed. The typical coal plant turns only a third of its fuel into productive energy and more is lost in transmission lines.
  • The typical residential or commercial building could cut its energy use, and do it cost-effectively, by 25-40 percent.
  • According to the Rocky Mountain Institute, 70 cents of every dollar the typical community spends on energy immediately leaves the local economy. If more energy dollars were retained through energy efficiency and locally generated renewables, the money would circulate longer in the community. The result – not unlike keeping the ball in play in a pinball machine – is a “multiplier effect” that creates more local spending, jobs and businesses.
  • The U.S. Department of Energy estimated last year that the direct economic cost of oil dependence in 2008 would be $560 billion, reducing our GDP by 1.5 percent.
  • A study issued last year by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy estimated that a 30 percent gain in national energy efficiency by 2030 would create as many as 1.3 million net new jobs.

As so many have pointed out for so long, efficiency and conservation are the lowest of the low-hanging fruit in the U.S. economy. The benefits are well known. Lower energy bills are the equivalent of new tax-free income for every family and business. Efficiency and conservation insulates consumers from rising fossil energy prices, whether they’re caused by a natural disaster, a terrorist attack in some oil-producing country, extortion by the oil barons in the Persian Gulf or carbon pricing here at home.

Thanks to the economic stimulus bill that Obama pushed through Congress earlier this year, billions of dollars in new energy efficiency investments are moving into the economy as you read this post. Stimulus funds will retrofit federal buildings, weatherize low-income homes and give states and communities more money for energy efficiency and conservation programs. Additional funds will make down payments on improving the efficiency of air and rail travel and on building a “smart” electrical grid. (For a cool explanation of smart grid technology, see the web site constructed by General Electric).

The stimulus package also provides new tax incentives for homeowners who invest in energy efficiency. The Alliance to Save Energy web site offers a handy explanation of the many tax provisions of the bill and summarizes them this way:

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) extends, expands, and simplifies the federal income tax credits for homeowners who make energy efficiency home improvements. The law extends the consumer tax benefits for another year, through 2010; triples the total available tax credit from $500 to $1,500; and increases the tax credit to 30 percent of the cost of each qualified energy efficiency improvement. The law also removes the cap on geothermal heat pumps and solar water heaters through 2016.

The bill contains some benign bribery for states, too. One of the keys to more widespread energy efficiency is allowing utilities to earn a reasonable profit from efficiency programs. Most states don’t do that today. The stimulus bill offers additional money to any state whose governor attests that regulators are considering this reform.

President Obama has come close to calling for a national clean energy campaign. In his Earth Day message from Iowa, for example, the president stressed personal responsibility for energy use and urged every American to replace one conventional light bulb with a compact fluorescent. But we can do better than that, and so can he. We need some executive sizzle – some aggressive presidential jawboning and symbolism to go along with Obama’s impressive progress on energy and climate policy.

There is no shortage of sizzle consultants available to the White House, but here are some suggestions:

  • During the campaign, Obama proposed that the nation reduce its electricity demand 15 percent from DOE’s projected levels by 2020. This should be elevated from a dry campaign promise to a compelling national objective. The President should call upon all Americans to participate in an all-hands-on-deck drive to make America one of the most resource-efficient countries on the planet. The Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Report can help track our progress. Because this should be a stretch goal that brings out our best efforts, the president should direct DOE to regularly assess the 15 percent target to determine whether new technologies allow us to be more ambitious.
  • In his campaign platform, Obama endorsed the idea that all new buildings should be carbon-neutral by 2030. Now he should ask the building industry to work with the U.S. Department of Energy to produce a model national building code for zero-carbon buildings.
  • The 100 million existing homes in the United States offer huge opportunities for energy savings. As Bryan Walsh notes in TIME, the $8 billion in the stimulus package to retrofit the homes of low-income families barely scratches the surface of the nation’s existing housing stock. Congress should beef up tax credits for housing retrofits in the next energy bill, but Obama needn’t wait.

The President should challenge students to conduct energy audits of their schools, children and parents to audit their homes, and teachers to get students involved in energy efficiency activities. DOE’s Energy Hog web site offers ideas, tools and guidance. Whether it’s adjusting a thermostat, sealing a window, replacing a refrigerator gasket, tweaking the air pressure in tires, unplugging a cell phone charger or doing something more capital-intensive, there are few if any households or schools in the United States that can’t find a way to become more energy efficient.

  • The President can set the example by enlisting Sasha and Malia to use the Energy Hog site to help audit the White House. A “Greening the White House” initiative launched by President Clinton in 1993 made improvements that saved more than $1.4 million over six years — but new technologies have emerged these past 16 years and experts say it’s time to green the White House again. As the Associated Press has reported:

Obama promised before he took office that he wanted to sit down with White House staff to evaluate what can be done to conserve energy in a 132-room behemoth of a mansion/office that leaves an EEE-sized carbon footprint.

“Part of what I want to do is to show the American people that it’s not that hard,” Obama said in a television interview during the transition. He said he’s one of those people who tiptoes around and turns off lights at night. “I’m not going to be obsessive about it. But I do that in my current house. So there’s no reason why I wouldn’t do it in my next one.”

  • President Obama should ask State Energy Offices to send DOE the most innovative examples of energy efficiency and conservation. He should recognize the best of the best each year in a Rose Garden event.

The President has asked the country for patience as he and his team work on the many problems facing us right now. When it comes to solving the energy and climate crises, he should ask not just for patience, but for participation. I bet most Americans want to help and would welcome more information on what to do. I bet most would be motivated as part of a national movement. I bet most Americans like the idea of saving money — and understand that building a new energy economy is not a spectator sport.