It’s a rare day when California is not the top-ranked state on some environmental ranking list. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy has measured states’ energy efficiency efforts five times now, putting California on top four times. In the group’s latest report [PDF], however, Massachusetts pulled out a surprise win.
Massachusetts out-greened the perennial champion with foresight and legislation. Three years ago, the state passed the Green Communities Act, which made major efficiency commitments. The law doubled the requirements for utilities' renewable energy purchases. It mandated that utilities invest in efficiency improvements when they cost less than generating more power and committed to adopt stricter building codes. It made it easier for owners of solar panels and wind turbines to sell power back to the grid. And it created rebates and other incentives for households and businesses to upgrade their lighting and heating and cooling systems.
These ambitious programs launched Massachusetts to the top of the ACEEE’s list, but only by 1.5 points. In its report, the ACEEE team wrote that it’s less instructive to look at the differences between states and more useful to look at the differences between tiers: the top 10 states have more in common with each other than not, but they’re noticeably ahead of the 10 right below them. Like Massachusetts, the top states are working with utilities to generate less power, mandating efficient building practices and funding transportation improvements.
"As consumers and businesses save on energy costs, they can spend elsewhere in local economies on goods and services that produce more widespread economic benefits than spending on energy bills,” the report says. In other words, Americans are spending too much of their paychecks on energy. The New America Foundation just released a report on the “energy trap” that shows how the same is true of Americans' relationships with their cars: Families making just over $50,000 spend more on their cars than they do on taxes or health care. But many of them don’t have any choice: no car means no way to get to work.
Spending less on electricity and on transportation would mean American households would have more money to spend on health care, education, culture, vacations, and basics like groceries. To free that money, though, state, local, and federal governments have to think ahead and commit now to start increasing efficiency.