01/25/2007 11:36 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Davos Day 2: The Future Depends on Increasing Our Energy Efficiency

Two panels that I will participate in today focus on the future of energy.

One of the primary motivations for writing my most recent book Plan B 2.0 - which can be downloaded for free at the Earth Policy Institute's web site -- was confronting the dangers of our current, fossil-fuel based energy economy and its role in catastrophic climate change.

A major chunk of the book, along with much of the work we do at the Earth Policy Institute, focuses on describing a viable alternative-energy economy.

The good news is that solutions do exist.

We see the 21st century, alternative-energy economy already emerging in the growing reliance on wind-energy in Europe, where 40 million people get their residential electricity from wind, the use of geothermal energy to heat 87 percent of homes in Iceland, the expansion of solar energy in Japan, and the growing fleet of hybrid cars here in the United States.

Another major solution is seen in the development of biofuels. I recently posted this piece regarding the dangers of the over-reliance of ethanol from corn. While that danger is very real, a rational and thoughtful approach to biofuels, which includes a greater reliance on cellulosic ethanol, should be an important part of our 21st century energy economy.

One crucial area of focus, a step we can take essentially immediately, is raising energy efficiency -- especially in the United States.

When the Bush administration released a new energy plan in April 2001 that called for construction of 1,300 new power plants by 2020, Bill Prindle of the Washington-based Alliance to Save Energy responded by pointing out how the country could eliminate the need for those plants and save money in the process. He ticked off several steps that would reduce the demand for electricity:

* Improving efficiency standards for household appliances would eliminate the need for 127 power plants;
* More stringent residential air conditioner efficiency standards would eliminate 43 power plants;
* Raising commercial air conditioner standards would eliminate the need for 50 plants;
* Using tax credits and energy codes to improve the efficiency of new buildings would save another 170 plants;
* Similar steps to raise the energy efficiency of existing buildings would save 210 plants.

These five measures from the longer list suggested by Prindle would not only eliminate the need for 600 power plants, they would also save money. Although these calculations were made in 2001, they are still valid simply because there has been so little progress in raising U.S. energy efficiency since then.

One simple energy-saving step is to replace all remaining incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), which use only one third as much electricity and last 10 times as long. In the United States, where 20 percent of all electricity is used for lighting, if each household replaced the still widely used incandescents with compact fluorescents, electricity for lighting would be easily cut in half. The combination of greater longevity and lower electricity use greatly outweighs the higher costs of the CFLs, yielding a risk-free investment return of some 25-40 percent a year. Worldwide, replacing incandescent light bulbs with CFLs in, say, the next three years would facilitate the closing of hundreds of climate-disrupting coal-fired power plants.

A second obvious area for raising energy efficiency is automobiles. If over the next decade the United States, for example, were to shift from the current fleet of cars powered with gasoline engines to gas-electric hybrids with the fuel efficiency of the Toyota Prius, gasoline use could easily be cut in half. Higher gasoline prices and mounting climate change worries are driving sales upward.

This is but one area of focus, but in theory its application is among the simplest in the short term.

There is no silver bullet when it comes to replacing our climate-altering, fossil fuel-based economy. But, using technologies readily available today, we can take a massive step towards the diversified, Plan B, alternative-energy economy of tomorrow.

For more Davos coverage -- including news, videos, and blog posts -- visit the Davos Conversation site.