The low-hanging fruit

At Monday's National Clean Energy Summit 2.0 at UNLV, an array of high-powered political and industry leaders gathered to talk about renewable energy, climate change and the recession. It was a wide-ranging discussion, covering almost every aspect of the green movement.

But a thread running through the conversation had a more practical, pragmatic flavor. According to several participants, the fastest way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and grow the economy is to concentrate on energy efficiency. This was described as going after the "low-hanging fruit."

Energy efficiency can be achieved quickly and effectively. Unlike, say, the cost and technological challenges surrounding solar power, there's no dispute about the benefits of energy efficiency. As a result, taking action could have an immediate effect on the depressed economy and global warming.

There is one little problem with energy efficiency: It's boring. As former President Clinton put it, "The least sexy topic is where the most jobs are."

Those jobs would be generated by retrofitting the nation's residential, commercial and industrial buildings. A report by the Center for American Progress outlines the situation: "Buildings account for 70 percent of all U.S. electricity consumption and 40 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions."

One reason that our buildings account for 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions is they are "old, inefficient and unnecessarily wasteful," according to the report. Green building is all the rage right now, but the movement is focused primarily on new structures, not the existing ones that constitute most of the nation's built environment.

The center's report calls for a national program to conduct "deep building retrofits" and thereby reduce energy consumption by 20 to 40 percent. Such a program would create many thousands of good construction jobs, boost manufacturing, reduce energy bills and cut carbon emissions.

What's not to like, right? So why isn't it happening on a large scale? The Center for American Progress suggests a variety of factors, but the overarching one is a shortage of financing options and incentives. Under the public-private program the center envisions, 50 million buildings would be retrofitted by 2020. That's 40 percent of the nation's buildings.

The cost to accomplish this would be about $500 billion. The money would come from public and private sources. But these expenditures would generate an estimated 625,000 jobs and save consumers $32 billion to $64 billion per year in energy costs.

President Obama's stimulus package contains an energy efficiency project with a goal of retrofitting 1 million buildings per year. But as the center's report notes, at this rate "it would take over a century to capture all the energy-saving potential within the existing built environment. Our economic and environmental crises do not afford us the luxury of 100 years."

Clinton put it this way: "We are still piddling with this."

The message from the National Clean Energy Summit was to stop piddling and start doing big things -- quickly. "There are 7 million Americans who are dying to go to work," Clinton said.

Another piece of low-hanging fruit was championed by T. Boone Pickens, the oil tycoon who in recent years has turned his attention to new energy frontiers such as wind and natural gas. Pickens emphasized that his top priority is America's dependence on foreign oil.

Noting vast natural gas supplies discovered in shale beneath U.S. soil, Pickens said we should convert our vehicles from petrol to cleaner-burning natural gas. He said there are 6.5 million 18-wheelers on America's highways and streets today and most run on diesel fuel. If they were all converted to natural gas, we could cut our dependence on OPEC by half.

Pickens suggests starting with 18-wheelers because it would be easier to provide the fueling stations needed to keep them rolling. In a recent blog for the Huffington Post, he explained: "Most 18-wheelers tend to run the same routes back and forth. Truckers stop at the same places to eat, rest and refuel, so the infrastructure issue of natural gas fueling stations will be easily handled in the normal course of commerce. You don't need a natural gas refueling pump on every street corner as you would for passenger cars and light trucks."

Once the 18-wheelers are converted, Pickens said, you could move on to converting the rest of the nation's vehicles.

OK, so we retrofit our buildings and convert our big rigs to natural gas. Both would benefit the economy and the environment. And both can be done immediately using existing technology.

In the long run, along with maximizing energy efficiency, we must dramatically expand renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, geothermal and biomass. To make that happen, however, we need a stronger economy.

Van Jones, the eloquent special adviser to the White House Council on Environmental Quality, offered an apt summary: "We need to connect the people who most need work with the jobs that most need to be done."

Geoff Schumacher ( is the Review-Journal's director of community publications. His column appears Friday.