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Researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill have partnered with Boston University to study the impact of including energy efficiency measures into the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan. The Clean Power Plan aims to lower carbon emissions across the country.

Their research shows increased energy efficiency measures will lead to reduced emissions, savings for consumers, and greater public health benefits. Institute professor Sarav Arunachalam co-wrote a guest column for the Durham Herald-Sun sharing the research findings.

Originally published in the Durham Herald-Sun July 8, 2016.

The Value of Energy Efficiency and the Clean Power Plan

by Sarav Arunachalam and Jonathan Levy

Earlier this year the United States Supreme Court put a hold on the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) rules aimed at reducing carbon pollution from power plants across the country.  These rules, known as the Clean Power Plan, were finalized in 2015 but have yet to be implemented pending an ongoing review by the federal courts.

At their foundation, the rules require states to develop individual plans tailored to reduce carbon emissions.  For example, here in North Carolina the state is required to reduce its carbon emissions from power plants by 32% from 2012 levels by the year 2030.  The Clean Power Plan provides a variety of options for states to achieve these reductions, whether directly at the emission source or through other means such as increasing the use of power generated by renewable energy sources and implementing energy efficiency practices.

While the courts sort out the legal issues related to the Clean Power Plan, states and power utilities are continuing to evaluate and explore the mechanisms needed for compliance with the rules.  Although North Carolina officials have challenged the legality of EPA’s Clean Power Plan, the state’s air quality agency has also started the preparation necessary to comply with the federal rules.

As North Carolina officials continue to craft the state’s compliance strategy and work to find the best balance of all the actions needed for the plan, they should keep in mind the public health implications. Strategies to reduce carbon emissions will influence emissions of other pollutants that adversely affect health at a local and regional scale, and a 2015 study showed that compliance strategies strictly focused on operational changes to power plants will have much smaller air quality and public health benefits than compliance strategies that include renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Among the various strategies, North Carolina should ensure that measures and practices to increase residential energy efficiency are a substantial component of any state compliance plan. Residential energy efficiency initiatives, such as increased insulation, sealing around doors and windows, and use of energy efficient appliances, are a wise approach to reducing energy use and carbon emissions because they are more cost-effective in comparison to other reduction strategies.

In fact, recent research coming out of the University of North Carolina Institute for the Environment in partnership with colleagues at Boston University School of Public Health demonstrates that increased residential energy efficiency practices can have important economic and public health benefits.

Researchers ran state level computer simulations of the impacts of increasing residential insulation levels in existing single family homes across the U.S. to the level required by the primary model building energy code in the U.S. today.  The results of these simulations showed significant energy and fuel savings.  For example, in North Carolina 2 billion kilowatt hours of electricity would be saved every year, along with reductions in natural gas and other fuels for home heating thereby saving consumers over $400 million per year.

Furthermore, the simulation also showed that increasing residential insulation in North Carolina would result in a reduction of 5 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year with health benefits valued at nearly $100 million per year.  On a national scale, this strategy would save 37 billion kilowatt hours or the equivalent of the annual electricity usage of 3.4 million homes.

While the study results are limited in that they focused primarily on one specific energy efficiency practice that could be implemented, the results are nevertheless clear that energy efficiency measures can form an integral part of a state’s compliance efforts under the Clean Power Plan.

As the legal wrangling over the outcome of the Clean Power Plan continues—a federal court is scheduled to hear arguments later this fall—delays of the original timeline required by the rules are inevitable.  Nevertheless, as states continue the process of evaluating how they intend to meet the carbon emissions reductions required by the rule, incorporating residential and other energy efficiency measures into the portfolio would provide multiple economic, environmental and public health benefits.

Sarav Arunachalam is a research associate professor with the UNC-Chapel Hill Institute for the Environment.

Jonathan Levy is a professor in the Department of Environmental Health at Boston University School of Public Health.                     

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