A History of Energy Efficiency in the US

35 years of energy efficiency progress, 35 more years of energy efficiency opportunity

ACEEE, June 30, 2015. Image credit: Jeff Perkins

In 1973, the Arab members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) imposed an oil embargo that increased energy prices, spurring efforts to conserve energy and improve energy efficiency in the US and worldwide. In 1980, energy efficiency researchers formed the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. As we turn 35 years old this year, we thought it would be useful to look at energy efficiency progress over the past 35 years, and to also look at possible and recommended pathways for the next 35 years. Today we are releasing the results of this work in a report entitled Energy Efficiency in the United States: 35 Years and Counting.

The Past 35 Years

From 1980 to 2014, US energy use increased by 26%; however, over this same period, gross domestic product (GDP) increased 149%. “Energy intensity,” defined as energy use per real dollar of GDP, is a common approach for combining these two variables. US energy intensity has declined from 12.1 thousand Btu per dollar in 1980, to 6.1 in 2014, a 50% improvement. While part of that improvement can be attributed to structural changes in the economy, we conservatively estimate that about 60% of the improvement in energy intensity is due to efficiency improvements, saving consumers and businesses about $800 billion in 2014. Dividing by the US population, energy efficiency saved about $2500 per capita in 2014. These efficiency investments and savings also generated jobs and drove modest growth in the overall size of the economy (check out our fact sheet to learn how energy efficiency creates jobs).

Energy efficiency savings over the past 35 years have also improved our nation’s energy security and our environment. For example, fuel economy improvements and standards have driven down oil use in the transportation sector. Looking specifically at petroleum, imports were 33% of US crude oil use in 1983 (the recent low point), increasing to 67% in 2006 before declining to 44% in 2014. Reductions in oil, natural gas, and electricity consumption also mean reduced emissions from the combustion of fuels, including reduced emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides (contributors to acid rain and smog), mercury and other toxic metals (contributors to health problems), and carbon dioxide (the largest contributor to greenhouse gas). In 2014, US carbon dioxide emissions totaled 5,404 million metric tons (MMT), 10% below 2005 levels.

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