Accessible clean energy is no longer a nice thing to have regarding reducing carbon emissions. It is now the foundational piece in humanity’s fight against climate change. Making energy efficiency accessible to the average citizen will be more impactful in the long run than any other initiative, but this task also poses the greatest challenge.
What are the current barriers to energy efficiency accessibility? What can governments, businesses and individuals do to break down these barriers? Here are the steps to provide clean, affordable energy and reduce carbon emissions.
How Energy Efficiency Reduces Carbon Emissions
Energy efficiency’s environmental benefits are well-established. It has been the key to reducing direct greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels — thereby conserving natural resources — and indirect outputs from electric applications. These reductions have come from three major sectors of the economy:
Industry: Manufacturing, construction and other high-emission industries have significantly reduced emissions with comprehensive energy management, process improvements, enhanced job training, and eco-friendly tools and materials.
Buildings: Energy-saving solutions can cut residential or commercial buildings’ emissions and help the U.S. reach its national climate target of 50% total reduction by 2050. Renewable energy sources, smart home technologies and sustainable waste management solutions are just a few important features.
Transportation: A successful shift to electric cars, trucks and public transportation could reduce emissions by more than 80%, while improved freight and airline systems can also contribute to sizable reductions.
Energy efficiency initiatives also have economic benefits, including cost savings and new job opportunities. Energy-efficient buildings devote less money to climate control and running electric utilities. Manufacturing plants can make products at lower operating costs as well. Meanwhile, new jobs are opening up in the growing renewable energy market.
These measures reduced global emissions by 12% from 2000 to 2017. However, a sudden increase in economic activity following COVID-19 caused another spike in emissions, including a rise in the real estate sector. In a way, COVID exposed the biggest weakness in the fight against climate change — the lack of access to energy-efficient solutions.
This accessibility problem overlaps with the global housing crisis. Soaring mortgage rates and record inflation have made the cost of living unsustainable for most families, resulting in nearly 2 billion people lacking adequate housing worldwide.
If people don’t live in affordable and hospitable homes, they can never adopt the necessary technologies and lifestyles to reduce carbon emissions. The solution to this major problem is clear — to break down the barriers to accessible clean energy so everyone can collaborate in climate change mitigation. What exactly are these barriers?
Barriers to Accessible Energy Efficiency
The greatest barrier to accessible energy efficiency is the high upfront costs. Homes with energy-efficient appliances cost an additional $2,500 to build, while environmental certifications can increase the home’s price even further. They might cost less to own in the long run, but most prospective homeowners aren’t willing to pay for them due to tight budgets.
Moreover, low-income households tend to spend more on energy bills than mid to high-income households in the U.S. The national spending average for these homes is 8.6%, while the average for non-low-income homes is about 3%. These communities are trapped in a state of poverty and wasteful energy consumption with no way out.
The second barrier to accessible clean energy is insufficient awareness about and effective steps to reduce carbon emissions. Although climate change has been a hot topic for decades, public awareness lags behind scientific advancement. Approximately two-thirds of Americans want to prioritize developing renewable energy sources, but that still leaves more than 100 million people unaccounted for.
Key Steps to Providing Accessible Clean Energy
Lack of affordability and awareness are the main roadblocks to accessible clean energy. Governments and businesses can take key steps to address these two problems, starting with financial incentives and energy conservation programs. Many initiatives are already in the works.
For example, the Department of Energy’s Building Technologies Office (BTO) launched several projects, including a $45 million funding opportunity to reduce the costs of building decarbonization for occupants in residential and commercial settings. BTO also launched a $22 million buildings upgrade prize to accelerate the transition to renewable energy sources.
Another project is the $2.4 million American-Made Equitable and Affordable Solutions to Electrification Prize (EAS-E prize), which will make clean electrification easier and cheaper for building contractors. This will help them implement renewable energy in all communities and housing types.
As for raising public awareness, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers a growing collection of climate change resources for educators and students. On a smaller scale, businesses and nonprofit organizations can launch outreach campaigns through social media or community events.
Educating homeowners will also help them address their houses’ weak points and wasteful areas. For example, they can add extra insulation to reduce heat loss and improve the efficiency of their HVAC systems. They can also upgrade to more efficient light fixtures, invest in smart home appliances and experiment with alternative energy sources.
More financial flexibility from tax incentives will help people make these upgrades. The federal Solar Tax Credit now covers 30% of clean energy improvement costs made between now and 2033. This credit is primarily meant to incentivize solar panel installation, but it also covers wind, water and other sustainable sources that reduce carbon emissions.
Typical annual carbon emissions are 14,020 pounds per household without any efforts to improve energy efficiency. A few strategic upgrades can reduce that carbon footprint by an average of 900 kilograms of CO2e per year — close to 1 ton. Accessible clean power can lead to a similar reduction in billions of homes and businesses.
The Fight to Reduce Carbon Emissions Starts at Home
Reducing carbon emissions will certainly require expensive government programs, but the fight against climate change starts at home. The lifestyles and living standards of average citizens will determine the outcome. Providing accessible clean energy to people of all backgrounds will accelerate emissions reductions and help the world reach its long-term targets