According to researchers at Georgia Tech and Duke University, Georgia has one of the least energy-efficient economies in the country. We rank 44th for energy codes and other policies to encourage efficiency in the residential, commercial, industrial and transportation sectors.
That’s the bad news.
But there’s good news too. Georgia has no oil, gas or coal reserves and little untapped hydroelectric capacity, but because of its wastefulness it does have great potential to “create” energy through conservation, making itself both more competitive economically and more responsible environmentally.
(That concept of “creating energy” through conservation can be tricky, but it makes sense. After all, every gallon of oil or kilowatt of electricity that we do not use for one purpose is freed up to be used for some other purpose.)
And how much of an impact can conservation have?
According to the study, with no changes in how we do things, energy consumption in Georgia will increase by 15 percent by 2030.
But by implementing proven, basic conservation strategies already in place elsewhere — strategies that in most cases would more than repay the investment — Georgia could be using less energy 20 years from now than we do today, even after accounting for growth.
But why? Why should we go through the trouble?
The ongoing tragedy in the Gulf is one reason. We won’t be able to wean ourselves from our dependence on oil within the lifetime of anybody alive today, which means continued drilling will be necessary. But as we do drill and pump, we have an obligation to minimize the impact by using oil as efficiently as possible.
The 12 million barrels of oil that we import each day from places such as the Middle East and Venezuela — and the $800 million a day we send overseas in return, often to people who don’t really like us much — offer another reason to conserve.
The lives of U.S. military personnel stationed overseas in part to keep the oil flowing also weigh in that balance.
Yet another reason is NASA data reporting that April 2010 was the hottest April on record, that March was the hottest March on record and that the 12 months from April 2009 to April 2010 constitute the hottest 12 months on record.
For some, however, those aren’t reason enough. For those reluctant souls, the Georgia Tech-Duke study offers more direct benefits.
For example, Atlanta Gas Light is now before the state Public Service Commission, seeking a significant rate hike. Later this year, Georgia Power is expected to seek a rate hike of $800 million a year, with additional major rate hikes expected as the company starts construction on two expensive new nuclear reactors.
However, by retrofitting homes and businesses, using more efficient appliances and taking other cost-effective steps, researchers at Georgia Tech and Duke predict that we could avoid having to build as many as six 500-megawatt plants by 2020.
We would also cut our annual energy costs by $3.8 billion a year by 2020, in turn producing a net gain of 32,200 new Georgia jobs.
Throughout the South, the report claims, fewer new power plants would also allow the region to save more than 20 billion gallons of fresh water annually by 2030.
However, energy policy in Georgia is largely dictated by utility companies that have captured both the state Legislature and the PSC, the agency that is supposed to regulate them. What they want is generally what they get, and conservation just doesn’t excite them much, for obvious reasons.
Georgia Power, for example, sells electricity. Like any business, it’s not all that interested in proposals that mean it would sell less of its product, even if it means the state as a whole would save money.
In their report, titled “Energy Efficiency in the South,” researchers also cite a 2009 poll reporting that Southerners are significantly less likely to support conservation than are their fellow Americans.
Only 48 percent of those in the South support rules requiring energy conservation, compared to 62 percent in the Midwest and 60 percent in the West. Market penetration for high-efficiency appliances is also low here.
In other words, the biggest obstacle is, well, us.