Most of the time, I feel like I'm doing my part to save energy, and I'm getting better all the time. But sometimes I feel like what I do to try to offset the unfathomable amount of energy that's consumed around me, and around the country, is so tiny that my actions won't make a ripple of difference. I wonder how the few hundred kilowatt hours per month I shave off through my conscientious behavior and my use of energy-efficient products and appliances means something in the face of the American economic juggernaut.
Think about the incredible amount of fuel used by the cars and trucks in the American fleet or the electricity used in powering the factories, schools, hospitals and offices that make our world go round. It's hard to wrap your head around it.
But one of the most exciting things I learned about the Department of Energy when I came to work here was that I wasn't alone—that experts have been working for many years in the Industrial Technologies Program and the Building Technologies Program (to name two of my favorites) to tackle the very important project of making America's economy more energy efficient.
For example, did you know that the U.S. chemical industry is the world's largest, accounting for almost 30% of all U.S. industrial energy consumption. Well, the Industrial Technologies Program (ITP) is working hard to find ways to make that huge chunk of American energy use considerably smaller. The program's goal is to help the chemical industry reduce energy use, water use, and toxic and pollutant dispersion per unit of output by 30% by 2020. By supporting cost-shared R&D projects—often those too risky for industry to fund alone—and by encouraging the development of collaborative partnerships, ITP helps achieve national goals for wiser energy use and environmental sustainability.
Similarly, ITP promotes partnerships and raises the energy-efficiency bar across many other American industries including aluminum manufacturing, glass-making, mining, steel production and petroleum refining. Not only does ITP help industry conserve energy for later uses, but it makes companies more profitable by saving them money. How cool is that?
ITP also partners with 26 universities across the U.S. in a unique program that trains students for careers making businesses more energy efficient. You can learn more about it here or read a feature story about a guy who started his own energy consulting firm after graduating from one of these university Industrial Assessment Centers on EERE's new Energy Empowers Web site.
Then there's the Building Technologies Program (BTP). These guys and gals are taking on another epic challenge. In 2006, American residences accounted for 21% of primary energy consumption in the U.S. and 20% of carbon dioxide emissions. Commercial buildings represented 18% of primary energy consumption in the U.S. and used 36% of the nation's electricity in 2006. Combining residential and commercial buildings' energy use, that's almost 40% of the nationwide energy pie. The BTP works to make buildings across the spectrum more energy efficient through its sponsorship of technology development and promotion of whole-building design.
Additionally, BTP strives to bring the lofty concept of net-zero building to an affordable, everyday reality. A net-zero energy building is a residential or commercial building with greatly reduced needs for energy—roughly 60%–70% less than conventional practice. Onsite renewable energy systems, such as solar photovoltaic panels or wind turbines, supply the rest and can actually make a net-zero building an energy producer.
BTP's goal is to create technologies and design approaches that lead to marketable zero-energy homes by 2020 and zero-energy commercial buildings by 2025. Many green builders these days are building extremely energy-efficient homes, often with renewable energy installations as optional upgrades, such as this company based in New Mexico, also featured on Energy Empowers.
Knowing that so much effort and brain power gets exerted everyday—sometimes to find ingenious solutions, sometimes to spread simple, common-sense ideas—to help ensure a better future for our country and our kids, makes me feel better about the small part that I play. It keeps me coming back to work each day inspired.
Eric Barendsen is a communications specialist and Presidential Management Fellow with EERE's Technology Advancement & Outreach office.