In my summary of my experiences at Greenbuild, I blogged:
The economy tanking may be the push needed to implement basic green changes like energy efficiency and conservation. The next big green thing is likely to be blown insulation, not photovoltaics.
Let's define our terms first. Futurelab has a nice succinct definition of both:
Energy efficiency means that users of powered devices can get the same enjoyment or use out of a more efficient device that uses less energy. Energy conservation is a planful pattern of human action by which energy use is avoided.
In order to effectively reduce our energy consumption, we need to do both.
To date, much of the action in green building legislation has encouraged higher complexity energy efficiency technologies, like tax incentives for photovoltaics. There is nothing wrong with incentivizing solar, but it is not the most efficient use of the first dollar invested in green building.
Instead, green building legislation should include incentives which encourage energy efficiency and conservation measures first, and longer term/higher cost measures later. One regulatory mechanism for acheiving this is to require each project seeking government funding to have an energy audit. The audit would identify a suite of energy efficiency and conservation measures to be implemented, and the cost and savings associated with each. The legislature could then tier its incentives to compensate the highest energy v. cost savings as determined by the audit.
In addition, the federal government could enhance national building standards for energy efficiency. States and local government could incentivize simple energy efficiency and conservation measures--like the afforementioend energy audits, enhanced insulation, cool roofs, efficient HVAC systems, and new windows and doors
[The DOE has a list of short and long term energy efficiency measures]
With fewer dollars, both public and private, available due to the economic crisis, we need to maximize the cost/benefit calculus by identifying the most efficient energy saving techniques. In other words, we need to make pink (insulation) the new green.
UPDATE: Christian Science Monitor had a nice little article on this subject. They did not, however, have many creative ideas about legislating for energy efficiency.