Prospects for offshore wind power development near Evanston look pretty dim just now, but those of us who support our community’s efforts to reduce its carbon footprint have little cause to grieve.

It makes sense to invest our dollars where they can buy the greatest possible reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, and while the time for offshore wind will no doubt come someday, right now it is way down on the list. The biggest bang for the buck is not in megawatts of installed renewable energy, but in “negawatts” of energy saved through investment in energy efficiency.

An investment of about $6000 in land-based wind power produces a kilowatt of electricity on average – enough for a typical household. This keeps 16,000 pounds of global-warming-causing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere each year if it displaces coal-fired electricity. That’s a reduction of one pound of annual emissions for each 37 cents invested. Not bad (though offshore wind power can be considerably more expensive). In fact land-based wind already produces electricity more cheaply (and much more cleanly) than a newly installed coal-fired power plant.  But investment in energy conservation has the potential to do even better.

For example, the Rural Missouri Electric Coop realized they could “generate” electricity much more cheaply (and cleanly) by investing in conservation rather than building new power plants (http://www.ruralmissouri.org/08pages/08AprilWatts9.html).

In their area, producing such “negawatts” is equivalent to producing a kilowatt of clean energy for an investment of only $1257.  The negawatt concept applies not just to electricity, but also to other forms of energy use such as natural gas for home heating.  

The economics of conservation
opportunities vary from one locale to another, but it is very clear that one gets especially good bang for the buck for new construction and renovations, because the incremental cost of high-efficiency features over more wasteful options is often very low.  Nonetheless, because of various market failures builders often fail to seize such low-hanging fruit unless encouraged to do so through building codes.

It is thus the height of irony that, during the time the public’s attention has been distracted by offshore wind power, the City Council has voted to substantially weaken the hard-won green building code.

The code now offers so much “flexibility” to developers that it is possible to pick a menu of options that avoid doing anything significant to improve a building’s energy efficiency.  

This is a big step backward. Evanston instead should have strengthened the energy efficiency provisions, and should also be doing more to foster energy efficiency in existing construction and across the entire residential sector.

So, replace that old refrigerator and furnace, and bulk up on insulation and modern windows.  But nobody need wait for wind off our own shores to participate in the renewable energy revolution.

Electricity choice has come to Illinois, and with it an option to choose a plan that provides a high proportion of renewable energy, even up to 100 percent, relying largely on lower-cost land-based wind farms. It’s as simple as filling out a form on the Web.

Check out the list of suppliers and how to sign up at http://www.pluginillinois.org/Suppliers.aspx. Constellation and Viridian offer green power plans, and the list of options is growing. Beware of cheap power plans that don’t disclose their energy source. They may rely on dirty coal power that appears “cheap” only because the cost of the environmental damage caused by coal burning and mining is not figured into the price.  

That hidden price of coal includes asthma caused by soot emissions, exposure of Chicagoland to toxic mercury, fish kills, coal mining deaths, mountain top removal and choked streams from the removed debris – as well as the all-important global warming effects.

When you buy cheap coal-based electricity, you increase the demand for coal-fired power plants, and subsidize all these damages. It is a far better choice to opt for slightly more expensive renewable energy, but then reduce your household’s energy bill through investment in energy efficiency. Combine negawatts with megawatts.

Dr. Pierrehumbert is the Louis Block Professor in Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago and a longtime Evanston resident. He shared in the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.