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'A Real Win-Win-Win': New Report Reveals Benefits of $500 Billion Investment in Energy Efficiency

"For the sake of our planet and economy, energy efficiency must be a national and regional priority in the United States."

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A new report from Food & Water Watch notes that residential and commercial buildings account for 39 percent of U.S. energy use. (Photo: Bally Scanlon/Photodisc/Getty Images)

A new report out Tuesday reveals that investing $500 billion in making U.S. residential and commercial buildings more energy efficient would benefit the planet, save money, and create millions of jobs.

"This substantial investment would reap dramatic economic benefits, create good jobs that foster a fair and just transition to clean energy, reduce energy use, and save money—all while reducing climate emissions."
—Food & Water Watch

"Residential and commercial buildings are considerable power hogs, accounting for 39 percent of U.S. energy use, more than either the industrial or transportation sectors," explains the environmental group Food & Water Watch in Building Climate Justice: Investing in Energy Efficiency for a Fair and Just Transition (pdf).

While acknowledging scientists' increasingly urgent warnings about the necessity of rapidly transitioning global energy systems away from fossil fuels in favor of clean renewables like solar and wind, the report focuses on the far-reaching and positive consequences of improving the energy efficiency of buildings across the country.

Food & Water Watch lays out the impact of investing about $33.3 billion a year in a nationwide initiative from 2020 to 2035. That funding, along with "aggressive and robust energy efficiency policies," would be complementary to broader efforts designed to curb planet-warming emissions and prevent climate catastrophe.

Researchers found that "this substantial investment would reap dramatic economic benefits, create good jobs that foster a fair and just transition to clean energy, reduce energy use, and save money—all while reducing climate emissions."

Food & Water Watch executive director Wenonah Hauter tied the report's recommendations to the national discussion about climate policies, including the Green New Deal resolution introduced earlier this year by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).

"With all the talk about a Green New Deal, one critical piece of any effective climate policy that has largely been left out of the conversation is energy efficiency," Hauter said. "It is the low-hanging fruit in terms of technological feasibility and cost-benefit gain."

"Energy efficiency has enormous potential to create millions of jobs, reduce carbon pollution, and save American families money on their energy bills—a real win-win-win."
—Sen. Bernie Sanders

Responding to the report, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said in a statement from Food & Water Watch, "Energy efficiency has enormous potential to create millions of jobs, reduce carbon pollution, and save American families money on their energy bills—a real win-win-win."

Sanders, a cosponsor of the Green New Deal resolution who is seeking the Democratic Party's nomination for the 2020 presidential race, added, "We must immediately come together to take bold action to transform our energy system away from fossil fuels toward energy efficiency and sustainable energy."

By 2035, building upgrades would cut carbon dioxide emissions by more than 300 million metric tons, compared with current projections, and cumulatively reduce utility bills by an estimated $1.3 trillion, according to the report.

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"Both the investment and the savings on utility bills," it states, "would spur economic growth and job creation—necessary for a fair and just transition for fossil fuel workers and a needed economic jolt to America's communities that have not shared in the economic growth over the past 40 years."

This plan could generate more than 20 million full-times jobs, boosting U.S. job creation by about 20 percent, and "the majority of these jobs would be high-quality construction and manufacturing jobs that can support families and provide future career opportunities."

Food & Water Watch emphasizes the importance of supporting workers whose jobs will be lost in the transition away from fossil fuels, specifically calling for "100 percent wage and benefit insurance for five years to ensure that workers and their families do not face catastrophic economic shocks from job displacement."

In addition to outlining the benefits of funding energy efficiency improvements, the report also features a blueprint for upgrading buildings. "Existing buildings need to be retrofitted and upgraded," it says, "and states and localities must update building codes to ensure that new construction maximizes energy efficiency."

Suggestions for both new and existing structures include: weatherizing building envelopes to prevent heating and cooling leaks; upgrading heating and cooling equipment; modernizing lighting; and replacing inefficient appliances and devices.

The report urges Congress to:

  • fully fund the Weatherization Assistance Program to upgrade all eligible homes by 2035;
  • target investments in socially and economically disadvantaged areas and in environmental justice communities with disproportionate pollution burdens;
  • robustly invest in upgrading the energy efficiency of all federal buildings;
  • expand funding for energy efficiency research at the Department of Energy;
  • strengthen and require regular upgrades to mandatory energy efficiency requirements for appliances, building shell technologies and other equipment, as well as further incentivize efficiency improvements; and
  • provide sufficient incentives for building owners to upgrade the efficiency of their appliances, equipment, and buildings.

States and localities, according to the report, should "ensure that landlords and owners of multi-family housing make retrofits and keep their tenants"; "invest in energy-efficient technology by allocating their own grants and other monetary incentives to local companies and communities"; and "strengthen and regularly upgrade building codes to ensure that newly constructed buildings are energy-efficient."

"For the sake of our planet and economy," the report concludes, "energy efficiency must be a national and regional priority in the United States."

This post has been updated with the proposed annual investment from a newer version of the report.

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