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Energy Conservation & Efficiency

Conservation, in the context of energy, means using available resources prudently, from turning off the lights when leaving a room, to caulking the leaky window frames and insulating the attic to reduce heat loss. Efficiency is defined as the ability to complete a task without wasting materials, time, or energy. An efficient process maximizes the finished goods produced from raw materials. Efficiency is central to successful business operations and a thriving economy.

Energy efficiency can be best described as using less energy to get the same or better outcome, like a well-lit room, hot shower, or cold beverage. Energy saved is generally the least expensive energy resource; it reduces energy costs as well as the pollution that would otherwise come from burning fossil fuels.

Sometimes the waste is embedded in our habits—the way we have always done things. An idling vehicle is a good example of habitual waste; twenty years ago auto manufacturers recommended idling to warm up car engines, especially in colder months. But today’s owner’s manuals are clear that idling more than 30 seconds is not needed; still, many people continue to idle vehicles, wasting a gallon of gasoline for every hour of idling.

Other forms of waste lie in outdated equipment or appliances. An aging boiler might consume resources at two or three times the rate of a newer unit. Incandescent lighting also consumes significant energy. Some waste requires technical expertise to identify, but the upgrades can pay for those costs in a few months because the increase in efficiency is so substantial.

Status & Strategies by Sector

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) outlines how we can improve our nation’s energy efficiency across residential, commercial, industrial, and transportation sectors, as well as through addressing human behavior dimensions. Each sector offers myriad opportunities for saving energy, materials, and other resources through improvements in efficiency. The following discussion is adapted from ACEEE with permission.

Homes and Appliances

American homes use almost 25 percent of the energy consumed in the United States. While home energy use has increased steadily over the past 25 years, it has increased at a slower rate than the rate of population increase, indicating some gains in efficiency. However, these gains are being offset by increases in the number of household electronics and appliances in the average home. The larger opportunities for efficiencies are in whole-home performance such as insulation and heating and cooling systems. For more on the role of homes and appliances in improving energy conservation & efficiency, visit the ACEEE Residential Sector Portal.

Commercial Buildings and Equipment

Commercial buildings, such as office and retail buildings, educational and health-care buildings, and hotels and motels use 19 percent of the energy consumed in the United States. Because more than half the energy used by commercial buildings goes toward heating and lighting, whole-building improvements in either or both systems could have dramatic impacts. Recent advances in LED lighting systems have particular promise. Other opportunities include improving the operations and maintenance of existing buildings, employing the kind of split incentive agreements that often occur between the bill-payers and the tenants of rented properties to pay for upgrades in energy conservation. For more on the role of the commercial building & equipment in improving energy conservation & efficiency, visit the ACEEE Commercial Sector Portal.


The industrial sector consumes more energy than any other sector—about one-third of all end-use energy in the United States. While industrial energy efficiency has increased steadily over the past three decades, there are still tremendous opportunities for energy savings, as well as the potential to instill the tenets of energy efficiency in a sector that employs and influences millions of people. The industrial sector has found energy efficiency investments to be an attractive avenue to increase shareholder value and reduce expenses, especially in a global marketplace. For more on the role of the industrial sector in improving energy conservation & efficiency, visit the ACEEE Industrial Sector Portal.


Farmers and agricultural businesses are actively seeking efficiencies to reduce costs and stay competitive. Dairy co-ops were pioneers in the logistics industry with their efforts to realize transportation efficiencies by aligning regional milk hauling routes—from farm to farm and from farm to creameries. Energy is a significant cost for today’s farmer and typically includes the energy to dry corn after harvest, to fuel tractors and other farm equipment, to run a modern electric milking parlor, to transport products to processors and markets, and much more. New organizations and expanded programs are emerging to aid producers and rural businesses in reducing their costs with a range of tools: offering rebates for energy-efficient farm equipment, providing online or on-farm audits, or lending technical or financial support. These can be crucial in keeping farms afloat during periods of sky-rocketing fuel prices. In turn, these successes lead to increased rural economic development, food security, reduced dependence on foreign energy sources, and improved environmental quality. For more on the role of agriculture in improving energy conservation & efficiency, visit the ACEEE Agriculture Portal.


The transportation sector consumes approximately 28 percent of all end-use energy in the United States. In 2012, the Obama Administration set new fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks. The goal is to reach an average of 54 miles per gallon across a manufacturer’s fleet (from super-efficient vehicles on one end to gas-guzzling autos or heavy trucks on the other) by 2025. With many vehicles already on the road reaching close to that average now, technical improvements in vehicles and reason- able policies that encourage vehicle efficiency could make even greater gains than the new standards. Providing wider transportation choices, from walkable neighborhoods to high-speed rail, will also increase mobility while conserving and making more efficient use of transportation energy sources. The movement of freight from trucks to more environmentally friendly modes of transportation, such as rail or marine, will reduce energy consumption, air emissions, accidents, and expenses. As these modes move to cleaner natural gas fuels, the advantages will be even more compelling. For more on the role of transportation in improving energy conservation & efficiency, visit the ACEEE Transportation Portal.

Electrical Generation and Transmission

In addition to the sectors that use energy, our energy systems themselves have inherent inefficiencies built into their design, simply because of the laws of thermodynamics. For example, energy is lost when we move electricity over long distances through transmission lines, or when we convert energy from one form to another, such as burning gas to heat water to create the steam that powers turbines that generate electricity. So there are needs and opportunities for improving energy efficiencies in electrical production and delivery itself.

Human Behavior

One of the greatest opportunities for conservation and efficiency is in human behavior—how we use energy and materials, how we make decisions, and why we take some actions and not others. As ACEEE points out: Everything always comes back to behavior, even when the discussion turns upon the installation of technology: No matter how efficient the light bulb standard is, people still need to get to the hardware store, select the right bulb, take it home, install it, and use it properly before the benefits can be realized. Our behavior is shaped by many factors, from our backgrounds and values to levels of education and access to resources, as well as by the influence of our peers or other external rewards and incentives. Any successful strategy for making significant gains in energy efficiency, conservation, and sustainable practices across various sectors needs to consider human behavior. We all play roles as energy users, producers, and stewards of our communities and environment. For more on the role of human behavior in improving energy conservation & efficiency, visit the ACEEE Human Behavior Portal.

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