The Washington, D.C., suburb of Montgomery County, Md., is aiming to become the first county in the country to require that new homes be built to federal Energy Star standards. That means good windows and tightly sealed and well-insulated walls—all things that we know can cut energy consumption by 15 to 30 percent. The builders don't like it; they say it will drive up costs. And before the Montgomery County Council's unanimous vote, the Bush administration weighed in with a letter from an Environmental Protection Agency branch chief, saying it does not advocate putting Energy Star standards into law.
This is the very debate we explored in our current cover story on energy efficiency.
While we ponder the question of whether America can somehow use less power without forcing anyone to change the way he does business, one thing is certain: If we continue on our current course—improving energy efficiency a bit in a voluntary fashion—we will most certainly need a huge number of big new power plants. The Edison Foundation, a nonprofit started by the shareholder-owned electric companies' association, the Edison Electric Institute, this week released preliminary findings (.pdf) of a study by the Brattle Group indicating that utilities will have to build 150 gigawatts of new generating capacity to meet electricity demand by 2030, even if the nation reduces its projected demand for electricity 33 percent through energy efficiency measures. The cost of building about 150 large power plants, nearly $500 billion, and an additional $900 billion necessary for transmission lines to get that juice from one place to another —that's money that will be raised from electric utility bills of the future.
If we don't want to pay for, and don't want to see the environmental impact of, such a building spree, it seems that it's up to us to prove we can do far better than the number crunchers say we can. And increasing the cost of a new home by 1.25 percent, as the Montgomery County sponsor of the Energy Star measure estimated his move would do, may prove well worth it.