Efficiency and Clean Energy: Faster vs. More Dan Delurey

March 14th, 2022


My B.S. was in biology, which meant I had to take physics. But as with all things learned many years ago, I decided to make sure that I understood the true definitions of speed and acceleration before I used them in a new project.

Basically, speed is the distance covered in a unit of time (e.g., m.p.h.), while acceleration is the rate of change of speed. We say we are speeding up when we accelerate.

For some time, but especially recently in the context of climate change, we have seen and are seeing constant calls for acceleration of climate solutions such as clean energy, energy efficiency, grid modernization, etc. But what these calls are almost always asking for is actually “more.” The calls for acceleration are asking for doing more of the things in that basket of solutions.

But that is not the true meaning of acceleration. For example, the acceleration of a car on the road is not adding another car to the road. It is speeding up the car that is already on the road. It means to go “faster.”

I began to focus on this as COVID first struck in the spring of 2020 and there was a dramatic increase in the need for ventilators. Of course, there was already a market for ventilators, and a production process to supply it. There was a more-or-less regular timetable for production and delivery. In other words, the cars were already on the road.

In an NPR feature run about that time, the head of a small company in the Midwest was interviewed about ventilator production. He began by saying that he did not even know that the small part his company manufactured was eventually used in ventilators. But once he was told, he and his employees sequestered themselves at the company’s facility and worked around the clock to figure out how they could produce that part “Faster”. They succeeded.

I submit that this is where we stand with respect to the things we must do to address climate change. We need to not only do more but also do the things we are already doing faster than before. An early emission avoided is more valuable than one avoided at some future time given the race we are in relative to GHG concentrations and temperature targets. While we don’t like to think about it this way, we are essentially engaged in a war against climate change, and early victories are necessary to put us in position to win the war.

Of course, if you don’t find war an appropriate analogy to use with climate change, you could always opt for thinking about what might be necessary if real war broke out, one where one energy-rich country invaded its neighbor and caused other countries to cease their imports from the invading country. You might think about how that sudden cut-off of energy supplies would have to be addressed in as fast a way as possible. You might think about how fast you can develop and/or procure other energy supplies elsewhere and increase energy efficiency. Speed would be of the essence. But of course, my example is only a hypothetical one, right?

As 2020 played out, much of my thinking on “faster” began to drift towards focusing on energy efficiency (EE). EE is something that has now been around for almost 50 years (if you count the “conservation” response to the 1973 oil embargo). Energy efficiency is being done in a myriad of ways – e.g., private sector marketplace, utility programs, government programs, etc. These efforts are regularly being evaluated and improved, but it doesn’t seem like doing them faster is ever an objective.

To get some sort of verification on my thinking, I reached out to various experts in the energy efficiency world and they corroborated my hypothesis – that we may not be doing EE as fast as we could. We are not addressing the question of, “If we had to achieve and deliver the same amount of EE in half the time, could we do it and if so, how?”

I am presently working with DOE on a project to investigate the Faster question when it comes to buildings. My team and I are interviewing people from across the spectrum of actors involved in energy efficiency as well as researching literature, reports, and studies. All of it is geared towards identifying opportunities for reducing the calendar time currently involved in saving a given kWh and thus avoiding its associated emission.

An example of an area being looked at is building codes, where many consider the time between revisions as too long and the time for adoption and enforcement by jurisdictional bodies much too long (some states are still on codes 10 years behind the most recent federal model).

If you have thoughts on the Faster question, please let me know. We would love to hear what you have to say. There are also plans to examine the Faster question in other areas of decarbonization and to further the examination of faster EE.

I hope that all of you out there will begin to think about going faster as well as doing more. Given the emissions reduction challenges we face, we cannot simply be doing more things at the pace we have always done them. That won’t cut it. If we don’t speed up, we may lose the war.

This post was first published in the Wedgemere Group e-newsletter

About the Author

Dan Delurey is Senior Fellow for Energy and Climate, Vermont Law School and founder and president of Wedgemere Group