Energy Logo

Energy Efficiency FAQ’s

Click a question to read its answer.
Print Print Questions and Answers


What is the American Physical Society (APS) and why should policy makers or the public care about the findings of this report on energy efficiency?
The APS represents more than 46,000 U.S. physicists in academia and industry and includes nearly 60 Nobel Prize Laureates. APS has long been active in the area of energy policy and released a seminal study in 1975 that helped set the research agenda for energy for many years. Energy efficiency is an area that inherently raises many technical questions about the potential for energy savings and how to achieve them. Therefore, energy efficiency was a logical focus for APS. This study, though, was written by experts from a variety of fields.
Why did APS undertake this study?
Energy policy is finally once again on the front burner of American politics. Sensible energy policy needs to be based on technical knowledge, which APS can help provide. With the U.S. importing more than two-thirds of our oil, and energy demand growing worldwide as developing economies in countries such as China and India expand, there is no time to lose in addressing the energy problem. In addition, the threat of serious worldwide consequences from global climate change is also looming. To sustain strong economic growth in the face of worldwide competition for oil and to address potentially disastrous effects of global warming, the United States needs a sound energy policy based on the best possible science.

Key Recommendations

What is the primary finding of the report?
The APS report, Energy Future: Think Efficiency, concluded that increasing the nation’s energy efficiency is comparable to discovering a hidden U.S. energy reserve. Increasing energy efficiency is relatively easy and cheap — far easier than tapping new supplies of any kind — yet the U.S. is failing to capitalize on efficiency. This is true even though we can become more efficient with no loss of convenience or comfort and the changes could actually save consumers money.
What types of "policies" for energy efficiency are you referring to?
There are near-term, medium-term and long-term actions required to achieve energy efficiency. Policies are needed to ensure that the fuel economy of light-duty vehicles steadily improves, and Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards are one possible way to achieve that. In the building area, potential policies include building energy codes, tougher appliance standards, more labeling for buildings and their contents, and programs that require utilities to help consumers save energy.
Why does the study include only vehicles and buildings, and not industry?
The transportation and building sectors account for about 68 percent of U.S. petroleum consumption and about 70 percent of carbon emissions believed to contribute to global warming. While energy use by industry is also important, the study does not address this because the use of industrial energy is industry specific. It simply was not feasible to put together a set of generalized findings and recommendations for the use of energy by industry as a whole.
A major emphasis is placed on the role of the federal government. Why?
The federal government has long been a player in the energy world in two ways – funding research and development and helping to create markets for the innovations that result. Those roles are just as important today. Industry systematically under-invests in longer-term, riskier research in all fields, and energy is no exception.

The problem is even worse in the buildings areas where most companies are small and do not have the wherewithal or the interest to invest in research. But research is not the whole problem. Systematic market failures limit the interest in energy-saving technologies in many areas, even though they are of great importance to the nation as a whole. One problem is that the savings are often small for the individual consumer and accumulate only over time, but the impact is enormous for the entire economy.

The federal government needs to help create markets for these products, which do save consumers money. Today’s refrigerators, for example, use far less electricity than earlier models even though they are larger. This happened because, first state governments and then the federal government, limited the energy consumption of refrigerators. Without those rules, such refrigerators might never have appeared in the marketplace and fewer consumers would have bought them.
How much will your recommendations cost?
Most of our recommendations save money for society as a whole because the savings from reduced energy use will be greater than any increased costs to purchase the technology. The report does, however, recommend additional federal government spending up front to help fund the research that will result in new, energy-saving technologies.

For buildings research and development, we recommend increasing annual federal expenditures by $150 million above today’s level.

The transportation sector is more complicated because more of the research is conducted by industry. Energy storage is the big issue for electric and hydrogen vehicles. The Department of Energy now spends about $50 million per year on batteries in its energy efficiency office, and this should be greatly increased.
How would your recommendations reduce the need for foreign oil?
The U.S. can substantially increase the fuel economy of its cars and other light vehicles. The cars, SUVs, minivans and pickup trucks on the road today consume about 9.3 million barrels of gasoline each day. If the amount Americans drive remained the same, moving from a fleet that averages about 28 miles per gallon — the average today — to one that averaged 50 miles per gallon — which is possible after 2030, that would cut U.S. gasoline consumption almost in half. All electric vehicles or hydrogen vehicles would eliminate entirely the need for gasoline for the light-duty fleet. If the entire fleet were plug-in hybrids with an electric range of 40 miles without a recharge, that would cut gasoline consumption by about 6 million barrels a day.
What changes are needed in the way basic and applied research is funded?
The biggest problems are the gaps in the current research portfolio. Some of our basic research is insufficiently targeted to solving energy problems. And there is very little long-term applied research, which is needed to make progress in areas like batteries. Both basic and applied research need to be better funded, but targeting funds toward the kinds of problems that have too long been neglected is also vital.
Why do you think your report can make a difference?
Washington seems to be in one of those rare periods in which it is ready for real change in energy policy. Gasoline price spikes, concern about national security, worries about global climate change, among other factors, have all contributed to this. Both parties are calling for change, in the area of energy policy as well as in the way things are done in Washington. This is not a partisan report. Both presidential candidates have acknowledged the need to improve energy efficiency, reduce oil imports and cut greenhouse gas emissions.