Is Texas a national leader on energy efficiency or is it lagging somewhere in the middle of the pack?

The answer is yes to both questions, according to a new report by a prominent efficiency-promoting group. It depends on what criteria are used to do the measuring.

BulbIn its third annual 50-state scorecard on “policies, programs, and practices,” the  American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) recently put Texas in 23rd place (tied with Florida and Utah).

That was a drop for Texas from its 19th-place slot in the group’s 2008 scorecard, which “examines six energy efficiency policy areas: (1) utility-sector and public benefits programs and policies; (2) transportation policies; (3) building energy codes; (4) combined heat and power; (5) state government initiatives; and (6) appliance efficiency standards.”

Regarding the states that improved their rankings the most from 2008 to 2009, the lead author of the report, ACEEE’s Maggie Eldridge, said in an announcement:

“The most improved states are stepping up their efforts in several ways, such as adopting new building energy codes and setting aggressive new energy savings targets. By highlighting these most improved states, we hope to encourage others to step up their efforts to implement energy efficiency as their first-priority resource.”

The advocacy group Environment Texas, a prominent proponent of stepped-up efficiency efforts by the state government, took note of the ACEEE report withan assessment that recounted efficiency supporters’ disappointment in this year’s legislative session and looked ahead to a new opportunity at the state Public Utility Commission:

While Texas dropped in the overall rankings, which evaluates six areas including state performance on transportation, building codes and state government initiatives, Texas improved on utility spending on energy efficiency. In 1999, Texas became the first state in the nation to establish an energy efficiency resource standard, “requiring electric utilities to offset 10 percent of load growth through end-use energy efficiency.” The program requires electric utilities to reduce energy use through programs such as home energy audits and weatherization programs, switching out incandescent lighting for energy efficient compact fluorescents, providing rebates to consumers to replace old appliances with new energy efficient appliances, and providing incentives for manufacturers to replace inefficient equipment with more efficient technologies.

The law was so successful that, in 2007, the Texas Legislature passed HB 3693 by…Rep. Joe Straus (R-San Antonio), doubling the mandate on utilities to 20 per cent of load growth by 2010. The law also directed the Public Utility Commission to study whether increasing the program to 50 percent of load growth is technically possible. In a December 2008 report, the PUC found vast potential for energy efficiency in Texas which, if tapped, could save Texans as much $11.9 billion on their electric bills.

In the 2009 legislative session, the House and Senate approved SB 546 to boost efficiency programs, but the bill ultimately died when a conference committee failed to reconcile differences between the two versions of the bill. However, on July 2, PUC Commissioners Barry Smitherman and Ken Anderson announced the PUC would look at increasing the standards administratively. The PUC is currently soliciting input towards a potential rule change. ACEEE finds that in 2007, Texas utilities spent $79.5 million on energy efficiency.

But why did the ACEEE report simultaneously bestow a leadership mantle on Texas as it reported that the state had just dropped to 23rd place in its scorecard? Eli Kintisch explained in the ScienceInsider blog of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science:

This year the council included a new effort to look at state-by-state energy efficiency by analyzing household energy use per person. The biggest surprise: Texas was second only to Washington state in efficiency improvement between 1997 and 2006, the most recent data. The results say a lot about making policies actually pay off—and how far the U.S. has to go to improve its energy efficiency.

The state efficiency performance data, which was not factored into the policies scorecard, looked at residential energy use per person. It’s next to impossible to compare absolute amounts of per-person energy use between states because of differences in weather. Comparing chilly Wisconsin’s per-person energy use to balmy Arkansas’s, for example, may unfairly advantage the warmer state, not to mention economic differences. Richer states would also tend to use more energy per person than poor ones.

To get around these problems, the council looked at the improvement of states over a 10-year time span for per-person energy use. What they found was pretty “terrible,” admits energy policy analyst Arne Jacobson of Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, who led the analysis. All but six states of the 48 he analyzed, he told ScienceInsider, had become less efficient over the 10-year period that started in 1997.

But in Texas, the average person used roughly 200,000 BTUs less energy in 2006 than in 1997 – roughly a day and a half’s worth of residential energy consumption. (That may not seem like a lot, but Texas has 24 million people.) Texas’s energy-efficiency policies on the main scorecard are much worse than California’s –it scored a 16.5 out of 50 versus California’s 44.5. But Texas and California improved by about the same amount in residential use over the 10 years.

So how did Texas improve so much while the rest of the country was sliding backward on energy efficiency? Jacobson’s team is still crunching the numbers – and the data have yet to be peer-reviewed and published – but he thinks the reason is that Texas is building so many new homes as its population increases. The state has “only decent” building codes, he says, but the codes get enforced for new construction, which can lead to improvements in efficiency. (The same can be said about Nevada, which also scored highly on Jacobson’s improvement ratings.)

Meanwhile, in an article discussing the ACEEE report, the Wall Street Journal’s Rebecca Smith also reported on a study showing that states are generally increasing their official efficiency programs:

States are backing big energy-efficiency programs, spurred by the belief that they could hold down heating and electricity bills, as well as cut greenhouse-gas emissions.

The programs, usually funded by surcharges on utility bills, help customers weatherize their homes and install new lighting systems, among other things. Total annual spending on the efficiency programs is expected to rise from $3.1 billion in 2008 to $7.5 billion to $12.4 billion by 2020, according to a study released this month by the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.

Galen Barbose, a staff research associate at the national lab, said the spending increase has been so sharp “that there’s an emerging shortage of trained professionals to design the programs, measure results and do the actual work of retrofitting buildings.”

While it is difficult to measure precisely how much energy has been saved with energy-efficient technologies, consumer demand has fallen in the past two years, the first reductions in consecutive years since the end of World War II. The recession may explain part of that decline.

– Bill Dawson

Photo credit: zimmytws –