Reboot Earth Day

Published 10:38 am Wednesday, April 24, 2013

by Mark Warner and Tom King

Monday is the 43rd anniversary of Earth Day. It is unfortunate that too many of our leaders — in business, government, and the community — are missing the big opportunity this day should represent. If the mission of Earth Day is to galvanize the American public behind a common goal of stewardship, shouldn’t we be promoting the most impactful efforts?

Consider this. Our nation is dead last among developed nations in energy productivity. In fact, the U.S. wastes more energy than it uses. A whopping 57 percent of the energy flowing into our economy is simply wasted as heat, noise, and leaks. Even China, a so-called undeveloped nation, ranks ahead of the U.S.

In addition to the environmental impact, that waste costs U.S. businesses and households an estimated $130 billion per year. That’s $130 billion that could be reinvested in infrastructure, education, research, health care, and small businesses. Instead of waste, we could be overseeing an energy and innovation boon, driving job creation, fiscal strength, energy security and independence, and cleaner air and water.

So, how do we save and move Earth Day into the 21st century?

For starters, we need to get smarter about our governing policies, and create cross-industry standards that support the environment, promote clean energy, and drive economic growth. It’s critical that we recognize stewardship and growth not as mutually exclusive, but as complementary goals.

Improved energy productivity is already taking shape on our roads and in our military. The Obama administration issued rules last year that will more than double the U.S. auto fleet’s average fuel economy — to 54.5 miles per gallon — by 2025. All four branches of the armed services have initiated significant efficiency programs, which are especially important given the danger of transporting energy through hostile territories.

Going forward, we must change in three very important ways.

First, policy makers should rethink how we regulate our energy market. The antiquated regulatory paradigm that ties utility profits to generating and selling more energy is actually encouraging waste and stalling investment and innovation. While Thomas Edison may not have envisioned a world in which we “pay” utilities to encourage customers to turn their lights off, it’s common sense. Simply put, reducing demand is cheaper than building new power plants.

Recently adopted policies that encourage utilities to meet energy efficiency goals are working across the nation. Between 2002 and 2011, states without efficiency goals exhibited an average increase in per-capita electricity consumption of 9 percent, while states with efficiency goals had a per-capita increase of only 5 percent.

Second, our commission’s proposed federal “Race to the Top” framework is modeled after the innovative education policy that has led to school reforms in several states.

Third, energy efficiency initiatives will benefit from a comprehensive national plan that accounts for federal, state, regional, and local energy requirements, and looks ahead to better understand and plan for the nation’s long-term energy priorities.

When Earth Day was founded in the U.S. back in 1970 by Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson, he envisioned the day as an “environmental teach-in.” If Earth Day 2013 is going to teach us anything, it is that we have to connect our efforts today with the interests of generations tomorrow.

For every tree planting and urban garden project, we must also adopt a new federal or state policy incentive that drives both greater energy productivity and economic opportunity today. That’s how we can bring Earth Day into the 21st century, ensuring it, and our nation’s, longevity.

Mark Warner is the senior senator representing the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Tom King is president of National Grid, PLC.