Megatons to Megawatts was a great energy fix for its era. For ours, it’s energy efficiency.
This is a guest post by Cliff Majersik, executive director of the Institute for Market Transformation
In 1993, the United States and the Russian Federation signed an agreement to convert 500 metric tons of highly enriched uranium from Russian warheads into low-enriched uranium that could fuel U.S. nuclear reactors. The Megatons to Megawatts program was born. For 20 years, Megatons to Megawatts provided much of the low-enriched uranium that U.S. nuclear reactors needed—about one-third of it. And when you consider that nuclear plants supply about a fifth of the country’s electricity, well, that’s a lot of our meals cooked and homes heated by fuel from 20,000 former bombs. Meanwhile, the Russian economy got a $13 billion boost over two decades.
But all good things must come to an end, and Megatons to Megawatts is expiring. On Tuesday, Dec. 10, the New York Times reports, the last shipment of uranium from the program will arrive at the Port of Baltimore.
Looking forward, there is one great source to fill the fuel gap: energy efficiency. Inarguably, the cleanest kilowatt hour is the one you don’t consume. Energy efficiency has the potential to save far more energy than Megatons for Megawatts generated. In fact, John A. Laitner, a researcher at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), has found that since 1970, energy efficiency has met 75 percent of new energy service demands in the U.S.
Likewise, well-known research by McKinsey in 2009 showed that the U.S. economy has the potential to cut annual, non-transportation energy consumption by roughly 23 percent by 2020, eliminating more than $1.2 trillion in energy waste—more than double the upfront investment cost required. This reduction in energy use would avoid 1.1 gigatons of greenhouse-gas emissions every year, the equivalent of taking the entire fleet of passenger vehicles and light trucks off America’s roads.
Energy efficiency will help us avoid the emissions that worsen climate change, but it can also help us adapt better to the changes we’re already seeing. An energy-efficient building is a stronger and more resilient building.
Last year, Hurricane Sandy knocked out power for millions up and down the Eastern seaboard. Days after Sandy hit, cold temperatures worsened victims’ misery; officials in New York City set up warming shelters and handed out blankets to shivering residents. In an extended power outage like that one, a home that’s built to a high standard of efficiency (that is, it’s airtight and well insulated) will be more habitable, with an indoor temperature less affected by a cold snap or heat wave.
Cities around the country are moving to make their buildings more resilient, and energy efficiency will be a crucial component of their disaster-readiness. Efficiency also has major benefits at the scale of the neighborhood and region, not just for individual buildings. By reducing peak consumption, it lessens the strain on the electricity grid and helps prevent future blackouts.
Megatons to Megawatts was the ideal program for its era, finding an unexpected energy source in nuclear disarmament after the fall of the Soviet Union. In a new era that’s characterized by dwindling resources, climatic uncertainty, and the urgent need to reduce emissions, the best energy source is clear: energy efficiency.
Cliff Majersik is executive director of the Institute for Market Transformation (IMT), a nonprofit organization in Washington, DC, that promotes energy efficiency in buildings. Under his leadership, IMT has expanded its work nationally and internationally and become a recognized leader in the energy efficiency field.
Majersik oversees IMT’s principal activities to advance energy efficiency in the built environment, including in the areas of building energy performance policy, energy codes, and energy efficiency finance. His work helped lead to the introduction of federal legislation in 2011 to account for energy efficiency in mortgage underwriting, and he helped craft the innovative building energy benchmarking and disclosure laws in the District of Columbia and New York City.