The Northeast stands at a cross-roads for the future of our region’s energy system.  Over the last decade there have been events that have alerted us to our growing need to diversify our energy resources: the great blackout of 2003 which left 50 million people throughout the Northeast and Canada in the dark, not to mention several storms in the last few years that have left residents and businesses across the region powerless for weeks.  Our current situation has taken years to develop. Today we rely on an energy system that is still dependent on fossil fuels, and is at the mercy of our growing energy needs, weather patterns, and politics. Natural gas, our fuel of choice at the moment for electricity and heat, causes our region’s heating costs to skyrocket in the winter and puts the Northeast’s electricity needs in a precarious situation.

Alternative fuels have in recent years been increasingly endorsed as the natural solution for curbing our addiction to fossil fuels, but the costs to implement some technologies are still out of reach for many or surrounded by much controversy.  Often overlooked is a solution that is available immediately, costs less than generating new power and is safe for our environment and our communities –energy efficiency.

Simple, right?  Wrong. Energy efficiency’s biggest drawback is its image. Many people are unable to view efficiency as a resource because it’s the energy that didn’t get used. Unlike a massive central generation power station, or even a wind turbine or solar panel array, energy efficiency is largely invisible. It’s the millions of compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) or light emitting diode (LED) lamps. It’s the thicker insulation to keep in heat and keep out cold. It’s the technologically-advanced HVAC systems that use no more electricity than they need to in order to keep our offices and homes comfortable, and cycle down in power use depending upon time of day or occupancy.

The barriers to accelerating energy efficiency are not unique to our region; they are shared around the country, as we collectively seek more cost-effective, clean, sustainable energy solutions. Those of us working to advance energy efficiency are tackling some big issues—entrenched behaviors, complex markets, and limited understanding of its true meaning. Each has significant implications for our region, our economy, and our planet.

But energy efficiency can be regarded as an energy resource just like oil or gas.  Each kWh that is saved through energy efficiency is one more earned for the grid. The Northeast may lead the nation in implementing energy efficiency policies and programs, but there is still much that can be done to accelerate its impact on our energy needs.

Frameworks that advance energy efficiency such as clean energy or energy efficiency portfolio standards; portfolio management;and demand response programs, designed to reduce short-term capacity needs and/or transmission constraints, are becoming more prevalent throughout the region. These efforts to increasingly treat energy efficiency as a resource also require consistent valuation of energy efficiency in terms of not only savings, but also its cost (cents per kWh) and avoided cost value (avoided generation, transmission and distribution costs), allowing energy efficiency investments to be readily and consistently compared to other resource options.

Carrie Nash is the Strategic Marketing Manager for Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships(NEEP), a non-profit organization committed to accelerating energy efficiency in homes, buildings & industry. She also manages NEEP’s blog, Energy Efficiency Matters,