The School District in Olympia, Washington, provides en encapsulating anecdote of the continuing, Brobdignagian, untapped potential to save energy at a profit, as the Olympian reports. Newly hired resource conservation manager Brittin Witzenburg has implemented changes in her first four months on the job that will save the school district $21,000 a year, every year, for many years to come. And she’s barely even begun.

  • For example, this week she is installing 365-day programmable thermostats in some 43 classrooms. They’ll save more than $6,000 a year by allowing fine-grain setbacks to coordinate with the school calendar.

    Ms. Witzenburg’s work demonstrates a rate of return on investment that would make Wall Street salivate. She’ll save the costs of her own salary and benefits within the first year of her employment.

    It’s examples like this that make me a rarity in green circles: someone who gets much more excited about efficiency than I do about renewables. Don’t get me wrong, I love renewable energy. Love, love, love!

    But if you want to really light my fire, bring to my attention an obscure but clever way to save resources at a profit.

    This attribute of mine is hard to understand for many. “Efficiency is just a stopgap,” they say. “It doesn’t change the fundamentals.”

    Balderdash, I say. Efficiency is the fundamental. It’s the cleanest, most economically efficient, and most-secure path. It remains the cheapest, by a lot. And its potential is growing, not shrinking, despite decades of improvements.

    In fact, opportunities to use energy more efficiently typically grow more quickly than any other energy resource. I suspect that’s because improvements in many different areas of technology all converge to save energy: better materials science (as described here by the New York Times), better information technology, and better design.

    That’s why I shrug in bewilderment when I read things like this (from coverage on Canada’s Kyoto plan in today’s Globe and Mail):

    "We are all after the same goal. We want to reduce emissions," Calgary Conservative Lee Richardson said. "But we don’t want to destroy our economy getting there."

    Destroy your economy? You’ll strengthen it! The North American economy is a lot like the Olympia School District. There’s so much efficiency potential—so much low-hanging fruit—that reducing emissions is a profit center, not a cost. There’s more low-hanging fruit in the efficiency orchard now than there was last year, or the year before, despite our best efforts to pick it. And the fruit is growing and ripening at an accelerating pace.

    We just need more Brittin Witzenburgs.