Energy Efficiency Critical to Reducing Carbon Emissions, Costs

Interview with Leticia Colon de Mejias, founder and CEO of Efficiency for All, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

A half-dozen scientific reports released in the past four months show that the earth is well on its way to becoming unsustainable for humans and other life forms. A special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says humanity has just a dozen years to keep greenhouse gas emissions below the threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius warming over the pre-industrial climate in order to prevent disastrous and irreversible changes to Earth’s climate.
That requires nations collectively around the world to sharply reduce to zero the amount of greenhouse gas emissions released into the atmosphere. The easiest and cheapest method of reducing carbon emissions, apart from not burning fossil fuels, is through energy efficiency.
At the Jan. 12 Achieving Our Shared Energy Goals forum in Hartford, Connecticut sponsored by Efficiency for All, speakers addressed the ways individuals and governments can reduce their energy use. Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Leticia Colon de Mejias, founder and CEO of Efficiency for All, based in Windsor, Connecticut, which is an educational and outreach non-profit focused on sustainability and leadership training for under-represented and at-risk communities. Here, Mejias explains the importance of energy policy and its relationship to equity for all people and the environment.
LETICIA COLON DE MEJIAS: So, I wanted to find a way to explain energy policy and processes to the common people of the world who don’t work in energy and therefore, don’t understand where it comes from or how we use it. And energy policy is much like any law policy; it has a mix of information in there, making the sausage, so to speak. Energy in CT is 95 percent non-renewable, and 5 percent renewable. But no matter how we generate our electricity, how we use it and what we do with it, impacts all people. So I came up with an analogy – that our energy mix is similar to making rice and beans.
When we are creating energy policy or our energy mix for Connecticut, that, if we utilize energy efficiency as demand reduction and draw down consumption as the basis – which I call the rice of it – then we could throw in any beans we’d like, and those beans can be diverse, they can be red beans, or black beans, and I like to say they could be things like wind or solar, or carbon reduction like nuclear, or they might be gas pipelines, but whatever type of mix we make with our recipe, who writes the recipe and who cooks the recipe and how that recipe is ultimately served depends on what dish we get in the end. But no matter how we develop a recipe or who writes it or cooks it or what spices we choose to put in it, it’s important that everyone gets a plate of rice and beans.

On that Saturday, Jan. 12, we went through the process of discussing all the ways we could make rice and beans to ensure that at the end everyone has a plate, and that our rice and beans are diverse enough to sustain us. Because eating rice alone will quench your hunger for a moment, and eating beans alone will, too, but if you make your plate diverse enough, it’s really nutritionally valuable to your body, and in this case, it’s the planet and the people who are the body, who are consuming the energy or the rice and beans. So I thought that was a really great way to explain to people that it’s important to be diverse in the way we develop our policies and consider having everyone at the table while the recipe’s being written and while the ingredients are being brought together, and while it’s being baked, so at the end the rice and beans works for all of us and not just one group or another.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So is “rice and beans” your way of calling for an “all of the above” energy strategy?

LETICIA COLON DE MEJIAS: So, this is my way of explaining to common people who don’t work in energy policy: that it’s very important that we have a strategy. Having a goal without a plan is just a wish. And in order to meet the carbon reduction goals and the energy demand reduction goals and to move towards a cleaner, renewable, sustainable energy source like 100 percent renewable, you have to do it strategically. So for example, we can’t continue expanding gas for heating and expanding gas for electric generation and still want a low-carbon future. Gas is just a fossil fuel like oil or coal. So if we want to move in that direction, then we need to have a strategy that’s going to bring us there over time.

So we would say, “We’re going to reduce demand by 30 percent using efficiency and making the thermal boundaries of buildings tighter so we’re not wasting heating and cooling loads, and then that would decrease our demand on our gas supplies, which becomes a problem. And every time we increase gas demand for electricity or heating and cooling, we actually increase our electric rates, because it’s the same gas we use to generate electricity.” And if we want to say some groups want to electrify heating and cooling to get off of oil or propane – which are dirty fossil fuels in people’s minds – I agree, but in order to do that, we can’t plug into the gas that’s generated by gas and nuclear.

So, Diane Duva is the director of the Office of Energy Demand at the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. She has a really well-rounded view of energy, having worked there for so many years. Efficiency, while not sexy, is simply efficient, so I like to tell people that. You know, conservation is a conservative way to save energy and therefore should be supported by all people, because who can disagree with the idea of using less to do more. It’s just a basic concept – using less to do more, using less of something and getting a better result makes sense in all things, including our economy, our budgets, our fuel sources. While not as sexy as solar or wind or carbon trading or carbon taxing, energy efficiency does absolutely draw down our carbon emissions, therefore protecting human health, lowering the cost of energy, increasing the efficacy of our renewable resources, and really meeting the common goal of growing our economy as well, and stabilizing energy so we don’t have brownouts and blackouts.

Efficiency has really been overlooked, although it has consistently met the demand reduction goals of the state of Connecticut and has a one-to-seven return on investment, and affords Connecticut 34,000 local jobs, generates $1.4 billion of gross state product, and 140,000 of net tax revenue, we – silly – decided to divert that really effective program – again, one-to-seven return on investment – and dump it into our general fund, which isn’t returning anything, as far as economic growth goes, to the state of Connecticut. So what we’re doing is calling for commonsense policies as they relate to energy, and ensuring that we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water, while chasing the idea of something fancy or shiny.

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