The American South is not known for its energy conservation. Coal is plentiful, and electricity is cheap.
Washington, D.C., and 16 Southern states from Delaware to Texas use 44 percent of the total energy consumed in the United States but account for only 36 percent of the country's population. The South is responsible for 41 percent of U.S. carbon emissions.
Of course, it also has an outsize industrial base, too. The South accounts for slightly more than half the industrial energy use in the nation, most of it from iron and steel, pulp and paper, oil refining and chemicals manufacturing. And while that helps account for greater per capita use, it can also create greater opportunities for savings.
Twelve of the 16 Southern states rank in the bottom half of the U.S., and nine of them rank in the bottom third on the 2009 State Energy Efficiency Scorecard, an annual publication of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy.
The scorecard from the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group looks at building codes, state legislation, appliance standards and utility and transportation policies aimed at saving energy. While California was ranked first with a score of 50, Mississippi and Alabama ranked second and third from the bottom with scores of 2 and 3, respectively, in energy efficiency.
But laggards can become leaders. In a report last month for the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance, a 3-year-old nonprofit group based in Atlanta, researchers at Duke University and the Georgia Institute of Technology outlined some giant steps the South could take to move up in the rankings.
"If the South could achieve the substantial energy-efficiency improvements that have already been proven effective in other regions and other nations," the report said, "carbon emissions across the South would decline, air quality would improve, and plans for building new power plants to meet growing electricity demand could be downsized and postponed while saving ratepayers money."
The South is the largest and fastest-growing region in the United States. Energy consumption in the region is expected to grow by 16 percent over the next 20 years, creating a need for nearly 300 new power plants if no steps are taken to cut back usage.
To flatten out future demand for energy through 2030, the researchers from Duke and Georgia Tech proposed nine aggressive energy-saving policies. If the policies are adopted, they said, 40 existing power plants in the South could be retired by 2030 and only 10 new plants would be needed to replace them. A typical Southern household would save $26 a month on its future energy bills by 2020 and $50 by 2030.
The researchers said it would cost the South $200 billion in public and private funds to implement the policies over the next 20 years, but the region would save $448 billion overall.
"We picked our policies because they were large and we thought they would be cost-effective," said Etan Gumerman, a co-author of the report and a senior policy associate at Duke's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. "We're hoping to show that there is a large energy efficiency potential in this region and good reasons for policymakers to be thinking about how to realize them and get the utilities' interests more in line with the consumers' interests.
"The sooner this is pursued, the easier it will be."
Co-author Marilyn Brown, a professor in the School of Public Policy at Georgia Tech and a founder of the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance, was appointed in December by President Obama to the board of directors of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the federal agency that supplies electricity to seven southeastern states. The authority is the nation's largest public power company.
Tennessee itself, though it ranked 38th on the national scorecard for energy efficiency, also was named one of the "most improved states" by the American Council in 2009. Last year, Tennessee's governor set up a task force on energy policy and ordered state agencies to "lead by example." The state also updated its residential building energy codes.
Delaware and Washington, D.C., which tied for 20th on the scorecard, also made the council's "most improved" list. Delaware established a nonprofit group to deliver comprehensive energy efficiency services to households and businesses. Washington implemented strict building codes and became the first city in the country to require the public disclosure of the energy scores of buildings.
Still, 11 of the 20 metropolitan areas in the country with the largest carbon footprints are in the South — a reflection, in part, of the region's historically low rates for electricity. Southerners pay just over half as much for energy as U.S. residents overall.
Ben Taube, executive director of the Energy Efficiency Alliance, said the report from Duke and Georgia Tech would help in "proving the point" about energy conservation.
"There's a lot of room for improvement," he said. "Efficiency hasn't been in the mix for a long time. But that's changing. Customers are asking for it. An awareness is driving our states, and we're seeing more deployment of efficiency, though not on the scale of California, New Jersey or New York."
If Congress puts a future price on carbon, the South could be more vulnerable but also "could perhaps gain the most by capitalizing on opportunities to transform its energy system, compared with other areas of the country," the report said.
Building codes and appliance standards either do not exist in Southern states or they lag well behind the codes and standards in other regions. Efficiency is pursued less aggressively, too. A 2009 poll shows that Southerners are almost evenly split over whether U.S. energy policy should favor conservation or drilling, whereas in the West, 60 percent of those polled said policy should favor conservation, and only 31 percent said the U.S. should favor drilling.
The report recommended more aggressive building codes for homes and commercial buildings; expanded weatherization assistance programs for low-income families; tighter standards in commercial buildings for furnaces, boilers, water heaters and air conditioners, and generous incentives for energy saving retrofits.
In industry, where the potential for energy savings is greatest, more efficiency assessments could be provided for plants, and new technologies could be installed in place of aging boilers, motors, pumps and fans, the report said.
By pursuing some of these same policies, California has kept per capita energy use flat in recent decades, while U.S. per capita use overall has risen 50 percent.
Aggressive energy efficiency policies "could set the South on a course toward a more sustainable and prosperous energy future," the report said. If adopted, it said, the policies would create about 520,000 new "green" jobs by 2030, and the economy would grow by $1 billion — a small but important boost in a region with the highest proportion of poor households in the U.S.
Finally, 20 billion gallons of water could be saved by 2030, or 45 percent of the projected growth in demand for water in the South, because it would not be needed for cooling systems at future new power plants, the report said. By 2030, the water savings are estimated to reach 90 billion gallons.