What Is Energy Efficiency?

Energy efficiency is about more than just light bulbs.

energy efficiency saves both money and electricity

Lightbulbs may be the traditional symbol of energy efficiency, but it's so much bigger than that. Photo: Shutterstock

Energy Efficiency Basics

  • Energy efficiency is not just conserving energy. It’s about getting more bang for your buck (for example, a refrigerator that uses less energy to generate the same amount of cooling power).
  • Energy efficiency is important at every level of our economy, from family homes to apartment buildings, office complexes to factories. The more we scale up efficiency, the more energy we save and the more benefits we see.
  • Because of energy efficiency, electricity demand in New England has stayed flat the last few years, even though we all have more electronic devices and our homes and businesses use more power.

What Does It Mean to Be Energy Efficient? 

Being energy efficient is about being smarter with how we use energy. You don’t need to freeze in the winter, boil in the summer, or sit in the dark to save power. Instead, you can patch any holes in your insulation to keep your house comfortable, plug in efficient light bulbs when your old ones burn out, and install Energy Star–rated appliances when it’s time to replace your current set.

No one is asking you to stop using energy. Rather, efficiency advocates are suggesting that we all use the latest technology to get more bang for our buck. For example, when your oil or gas furnace needs to be replaced you can install a heat pump instead of a new oil or gas system. Heat pumps take in air from outside and use a little bit of electricity along with fancy physics to keep your home the exact temperature you want. 

On a larger scale, a town can install high-efficiency lighting systems in its schools, libraries, street lamps, and other public offices and buildings. The town is still comfortable and well lit, but now it’s saving money and using less energy. Businesses can also take advantage of the savings by replacing energy-sucking printers and drafty windows with newer, efficient models. Or, in a factory, updating aging systems to use newer equipment that draws less power.

How Does Energy Efficiency Help Me (and the Planet)?

With a small upfront investment, you can save big on your electricity bills. Not only are you paying for less electricity, but if every home, business, and public space is more efficient, the price of energy will go down across the board. (This happens because with lower demand, our grid operator doesn’t have to turn on the most expensive, polluting power plants.) 

Demand for electricity is only going up. Getting off fossil fuels means using more electricity for heat and transportation. So, efficiency will mean that as we ditch fossil fuels in other parts of our economy – trading oil furnaces for heat pumps and gas guzzlers for electric cars – we can manage our demand for power more effectively. This will give us time to build up more clean sources of electricity. Energy efficiency is a way to meet this growing demand without having to burn more fossil fuels or spend money on expensive power plants.

How Do You Become More Energy Efficient?

Here in New England, anyone can take action to make their home or business more energy efficient. Every state in the region has a program – MassSave, NHSave, Efficiency Vermont, Efficiency Maine Trust, Energize Connecticut, and Energy Saving Programs in Rhode Island – that are specifically designed to facilitate this transition. Most of them offer a free home energy assessment to help you figure out where to start and will then help you save money on efficient appliances. These programs also have specific benefits for low-income families.

Three easy changes to start with:

  1. Change your lightbulbs to highly efficient LEDs (not only do they use less power, they also last significantly longer than traditional incandescent bulbs).
  2. Swap your old appliances for energy-efficient models.
  3. Seal up your insulation for an airtight home.

Even renters have options. Talk to your landlord about all of the above and opt for energy efficient power strips and gadgets you can take with you to your next place.

These solutions aren’t just for homes, either. Office buildings and factories can and should do this too. There are state-level incentives, rebates, and programs to help update buildings and equipment. These upgrades can result in big savings. For example, a food production facility in Massachusetts was able to save $125,000 a year by implementing energy efficiency measures during retrofits of its plant. (You can read more case studies here.) 

Cities and towns are also well situated to take advantage of energy efficiency benefits and incentives. In many areas, they’re eligible for money from the state that is specifically earmarked for efficiency upgrades. (In New Hampshire, 47 towns were selected to receive grants from the state to bolster their efficiency efforts.)

How Do You Help New England Become More Energy Efficient?

For every dollar invested in energy efficiency, we see two to three dollars’ worth of energy savings. That’s a great return on investment. What we need to do now is double down on these investments. We also need to make sure our utilities are adequately funding – and not undermining – these programs. Across the region, these programs are underfunded and aren’t reaching as many renters or low-income families as they should. They can also lack language access, meaning that families or businesses whose primary language isn’t English are missing out on the benefits.

We need to hold our utilities accountable and help them devise new business models. Right now, some utilities make money by selling more power and building new poles and wires. Others simply lack strong enough incentives to prioritize efficiency. We need to shift their model so they can help us save electricity while still making a profit – and help protect our climate while they’re at it. 

It’s up to us to demand strong energy efficiency programs so that we can save money on our electric bills and lower our polluting emissions across the board. Beyond simply using your state’s energy efficiency program, you can express support for these programs and for efficiency legislation by emailing regulators and calling local legislators. After all, the cleanest, cheapest energy is the energy you don’t use at all. 


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