Looking to the Future for Energy Efficiency

Given the rapid pace of innovation today, it’s hard to grasp what the future will be like in five years, let alone 40. Technologies continue to become smaller and faster in ways few thought could be possible. Sometimes, I like to imagine what it would be like to go back in time (like the 1970s) and talk to people about what things will be like today. “No”, I’d explain. “Not everyone will be flying around on hoverboards, but there’s going to be this amazing thing called the ‘Internet,’ and telephones are going to get a lot more interesting.”

For Reinventing Fire, Rocky Mountain Institute’s peer-reviewed blueprint for getting the U.S. off of oil, coal, and nuclear energy by 2050, thinking about the future was humbling—many variables remain outside of our control. So, despite the depth of our research, we had to embrace the ambiguity and uncertainty of looking that far into the future and had to acknowledge that things will happen that no one can predict. At the same time though, we expect certain trends to continue. One is that energy efficiency will remain to be a huge opportunity that businesses and policymakers should embrace.

Our Reinventing Fire analysis shows that these opportunities are tremendous. Looking at buildings, industry, and transportation, the U.S. could reduce its energy consumption 39-56 percent by 2050, saving $5 trillion in present value terms.


More good news is that RMI isn’t the only organization with research that shows energy savings of this magnitude are achievable. A recently released report from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy’s (ACEEE), "The Long-Term Energy Efficiency Potential: What the Evidence Suggest," confirms our research findings. In their report, ACEEE researchers lay out two scenarios: an "Advanced" case, which includes the adoption of known technologies, and a "Phoenix" case, which looks at how these technologies would save energy when combined with better design in buildings, manufacturing facilities and in city planning. The “Advanced” case saves 42 percent compared to the reference case and the “Phoenix” case achieves savings of 59 percent.

The benefits of energy efficiency are well established. Eliminating energy waste means more money circulating in the economy, creating new jobs. Energy efficiency improves national security. Saving kilowatt-hours reduces CO2 emissions along with increasing asset value, improving comfort, and lowering maintenance costs for businesses and homeowners investing in efficiency. (See RMI’s Retrofit Depot for some studies.)

Efficiency measures also hold the potential to avert the need for major investments in power plants and the grid over the next 40 years. If energy efficiency is able to substantially reduce demand, then a whole new set of generation technologies could emerge to enable a customer-centric, distributed system fueled largely by renewables that will be cleaner, safer, and more resilient. However, we shouldn’t just assume this huge opportunity will be captured just because it exists. Businesses and policymakers must create new solutions in order to take the potential savings RMI and ACEEE have identified for the future and turn them into real, concrete progress.