Physicists Urge Energy Efficiency as Top Priority

Thomas Schueneman

“The Opportunities are Huge and the Costs Are Small"

A report released today by the American Physical Society urges the United States to prioritize energy efficiency in cars and buildings as a means of addressing the nation’s dependence on foreign oil and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The report from the 46,000 member organization characterizes the energy crisis as the worst in U.S. history and that the physics and chemistry behind the human causes of global warming is “well understood and beyond dispute”.

Learn Why Physicists Urge Energy Efficiency as Top Priority

American Physical Society urges energy efficiency as a solution for the energy crisis
American Physical Society urges energy efficiency as a solution for the energy crisis

While the mantra and imagined solution to the energy crises from some remains summarized in the all-too-familiar phrase drill now, the report concludes that increasing energy efficiency is “comparable to discovering a hidden U.S. energy reserve”. One that is relatively easy and cheap to tap – “far easier than tapping new supplies of any kind”. Yet, the country is “slow to catch on” in fully utilizing the potential of energy efficiency, a strategy that would also reduce costs without sacrificing “comfort and convenience”.

Energy that you don't use is free. It's not imported and it doesn't emit any greenhouse gases. Most of the things we recommend don't cost anything to the economy. The economy will save money”, says Burton Richter, who chaired the study panel and is the 1976 winner of the Nobel Peace prize in physics, “The bottom line is that the quickest way to do something about America's use of energy is through energy efficiency”.

The two key areas where efficiency can derive the most benefit are transportation and buildings, which together consume two-thirds of our energy. Many of the short-term strategies to improve efficiency will cost little to implement, but the report urges the federal government to increase spending on research and development of next-generation building technologies as well as for development of batteries for hybrid vehicles, plug-in hybrids, and battery electric vehicles.

Following are key points from the report:


  • Technologies are available to safely move beyond the 35 mile per gallon Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard mandated by law by the year 2020. The federal government should establish policies to ensure that new light-duty vehicles average 50 mpg or more by 2030.

  • Plug-in hybrids require more efficient and more durable batteries able to withstand deep discharges that are not yet in commercial large-scale production. Given the technical difficulties, plug-in hybrids will not replace the standard American car in the near future.

  • Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have the potential to eliminate gasoline usage, but they also require scientific breakthroughs, including advances in fuel cells, catalysts and on-board hydrogen storage systems


  • Energy use by buildings could be no higher in 2030 than it is today if technologies that are available or in the pipeline are installed in a cost-effective manner.
  • Widespread, cost-effective construction of residential zero energy buildings (ZEB)—buildings that use no net energy—is feasible by 2020, except in hot, humid climates.
  • Widespread, cost-effective construction of ZEB commercial buildings by 2030—a current goal in law and of many groups—will not be possible without an intensified federal program of research, development and demonstration.
  • Current green building rating systems such as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) do not appear to give sufficient weight to energy efficiency

The American people need leadership from the Congress and the next president on this issue," says Richter, "Both Senators McCain and Obama have outlined plans for improving energy efficiency and the important role new technologies will play in our energy future. The next leader of the United States will have an opportunity to be the first in history to lay the necessary groundwork to reduce energy use among Americans”.

Global Warming (excerpt from report)

The physics and chemistry of the greenhouse-gas effect are well understood and beyond dispute. Science has also achieved an overwhelming consensus that the increase in greenhouse gases is largely of human origin, tracing back to the Industrial Revolution and accelerating in recent years, as carbon dioxide and methane - the products of fossil fuel use - have entered the atmosphere in increasing quantities. Modeling the climate has proven to be a complex scientific task. But although the models are far from perfect, many of their predictions are so alarming that conservative, risk-averse policymaking requires that they be considered with extraordinary gravity.”

APS Report:
Energy=Future | Science Fact Sheet | FAQ’s | Executive Summary (pdf)


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