In a Feb. 5 cover story of the Boston Globe Magazine, Neil Swidey’s “What if the Lights Go Out?” paints a bleak picture of the state of our regional electric grid. And all of his reasons are quite valid: we are overly-reliant on natural gas fired electricity generation; we have an aging electricity and natural gas infrastructure that is vulnerable to failures on its own and attacks from those intent on crippling our power system; and we are increasingly facing extreme weather events that challenge both that system and our resolve.
Swidey largely dismisses renewable energy resources, focusing on their intermittent nature rather than their promise to deliver clean energy from sources that, unlike fossil fuels, are not finite.
But his biggest disservice to readers is his complete omission of a solution that is quickly deployed, clean, reliable, affordable and indigenous to our region: energy efficiency.
Swidey makes no mention of the fact that cost-effective energy efficiency has the potential to save New England about 31,800 gigaWatt-hours of electricity, or the equivalent to the amount of energy produced each year by about four large coal-fired power plants. The electricity saved could power 4 million homes for one year - about equal to the households in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont combined.
Up until very recently, ISO-New England has been reluctant to count on energy efficiency in making its forecasts of energy need and related expansion plans for our electricity system. In recent years, however, as many of our New England states – particularly Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island – have come to recognize the economic, environmental and energy systems benefits of capturing all cost-effective energy efficiency, ISO has been forced to begin to account for such resources available on the demand side of the energy equation.
Energy efficiency’s biggest drawback is its image. As must have been the case with Swidey, many people are unable to view efficiency as a resource because it’s the energy that didn’t happen. Unlike a massive central generation power station, or even a wind turbine or solar panel array, energy efficiency is largely invisible. It’s the millions of compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) or light emitting diode (LED) lamps. It’s the thicker insulation to keep in heat and keep out cold. It’s the technologically-advanced HVAC systems that use no more electricity than they need to in order to keep our offices and homes comfortable, and cycle down in power use depending upon time of day or occupancy.
As Swidey readily acknowledges, the majority of us don’t pay attention to our energy system, “until it annoys us.” But rather than leaving readers with a feeling of helplessness, he could have helped explain that efficiency is just as effective, and, for most people, far more accessible, than the off-grid home in Vermont that he describes.
And because our energy challenges are many, we need to focus on solutions with multiple benefits and that provide the foundation of a comprehensive policy portfolio. Clean air, affordability and system stability are all benefits of energy efficiency. And, while efficiency can’t do it all alone, it provides us a bridge to a future when we have more readily deployed renewable energy, and a distribution system that reflects more distributed energy resources and the elimination of the wasteful expense of energy.
Lastly, when addressing global climate change, we can’t keep simply saying things like “Although people can debate the reasons behind it…”, as if ignoring the underlying causes somehow makes the results more tolerable. These more frequent extreme weather events are a result of humans changing the climate we live in by belching increasing amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. As both a means of slowing that trend, and simultaneously becoming better prepared for the consequences that are already upon us, we must focus as much, if not more so, on how we are using energy as we are on how we generate it.
A good first step would be how the media covers energy issues, because each kilowatt-hour saved is one earned to address our ever-growing dependence upon electricity.
Jim O’Reilly is Director of Public Policy at Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships (NEEP).