The best energy expenditure is negative

The negawatt is an environmentalist's best energy friend.

Last summer, the reality of air pollution in Maryland finally got through to me. This realization came not in an asthma clinic or downwind of a coal-fired power plant, but in my quiet suburban garden. One sunny afternoon, I noticed that the leaves of my green beans were covered with small bronze lesions that I didn't recognize as the signature of any common insect or disease. With Google's help, I found my beans were suffering from ozone damage.

Ozone damage? Sure, I knew about air pollution in Baltimore/D.C. and ozone action days, but isn't bad air mostly an urban problem? Surely the air is OK in my yard, miles west of Baltimore. But there it was, visible proof that the air in my yard contained enough poisonous ozone to damage bean leaves. Hey, I'm breathing the same air! And I'm not the only one. Over 85 percent of us in Maryland and D.C. live with air that has a higher ozone level on the hottest summer days than the EPA considers safe. If ozone can cause lesions all over my bean leaves, what's it doing to our lungs?

Burning coal for electricity releases more than 80 poisons and pollutants. Some interact to produce life-shortening compounds like ozone and tiny particles that carry poisonous compounds right into our lungs. Every year, bad air kills hundreds of people in Maryland by aggravating heart and lung diseases; it sends thousands of Marylanders to the hospital and hundreds of thousands to the doctor for asthma and other respiratory diseases. Across the U.S., the 310,000 work days lost to pollution-related disease reduce income and productivity, and the 180,000 missed school days jeopardize our kids' futures. These are the true costs of today's electricity, and it's a high price to pay.

But there's good news on that smoggy horizon! EPA has just finalized its Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants. This plan allows states to craft customized portfolios of emissions-reducing actions, such as increasing the fraction of wind and solar in the power mix reducing the need for power through improvements in energy efficiency.

A recent scientific study compared the health co-benefits of different strategies for reducing carbon pollution under the Clean Power Plan. Surprisingly, strict controls of carbon pollution from power plants did not produce the greatest health benefits. Instead, the winning strategy combined moderate increases in pollution control at power plants with policies that increase energy efficiency. Adding more clean wind and solar power, as promoted in the final version of the Clean Power Plan, will produce even better health outcomes.

Here's why energy efficiency is the secret weapon against air pollution. Reducing carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants doesn't necessarily reduce the other poisonous emissions from coal combustion. In contrast, reducing the amount of power we need avoids all the pollution that generating that power would produce. Corny but true, the cheapest (and healthiest) watt is the one you don't use — the negawatt.

Though energy efficiency might seem really boring, its potential is anything but. Last year, the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy estimated that increasing efficiency across residential, commercial and manufacturing sectors could slash emissions while saving Americans trillions of dollars (yes, trillions!). The potential for efficiency goes way beyond the Energy Star refrigerator. We have the technology to dramatically reduce energy use not just in homes, but in multifamily dwellings, commercial buildings, manufacturing and industry. Moreover, installing efficiency measures creates jobs, and recent economic reports describe how the proven job-creating power of efficiency and renewables can boost the economy.

Maryland's Public Service Commission decided this summer to require utilities to reduce demand for electricity by 2 percent each year through energy efficiency. Encouraging your legislators to increase the required contribution of clean wind and solar to Maryland's power mix will go even further to clean up the dirty air that 85 percent of Marylanders are currently breathing.

Cleaning Maryland's air will save lives, improve our health, reduce the future magnitude of climate change, boost the economy and even help out my green beans. What's not to love?

Sara Via is a professor in the Department of Biology within the University of Maryland, College Park. Her email is svia@umd.edu.

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