Suppose I paid you for every pound of pollution you generated and punished you for every pound you reduced. You would probably spend most of your time trying to figure out how to generate more pollution. And suppose that if you generated enough pollution, I had to pay you to build a new plant, no matter what the cost, and no matter how much cheaper it might be to not pollute in the first place.
Well, that's pretty much how we have run the U.S. electric grid for nearly a century. The more electricity a utility sells, the more money it makes. If it's able to boost electricity demand enough, the utility is allowed to build a new power plant with a guaranteed profit. The only way a typical utility can lose money is if demand drops. So the last thing most utilities want to do is seriously push strategies that save energy, strategies that do not pollute in the first place.
Serious energy efficiency is not a one-shot resource, where you pick the low-hanging fruit and you're done. In fact, the fruit grows back. The efficiency resource never gets exhausted because technology keeps improving and knowledge spreads to more people.
The best corporate example is Dow Chemical's Louisiana division, consisting of more than 20 plants. In 1982, the division's energy manager, Ken Nelson, began a yearly contest to identify and fund energy-saving projects. ...
The first year of the contest had 27 winners requiring a total capital investment of $1.7 million with an average annual return on investment of 173 percent. Many at Dow felt that there couldn't be others with such high returns. The skeptics were wrong. The 1983 contest had 32 winners requiring a total capital investment of $2.2 million and a 340 percent return -- a savings of $7.5 million in the first year and every year after that. Even as fuel prices declined in the mid-1980s, the savings kept growing. The average return to the 1989 contest was the highest ever, an astounding 470 percent in 1989 -- a payback of 11 weeks that saved the company $37 million a year. [...]