In 1989, Amory Lovins noticed a typo in a report that turned Megawatt into Negawatt. It was so good that he ran with it, turning it into the unit of energy saved through conservation or efficiency. Now the Negawatt is back, as energy efficiency becomes all the rage again. In Europe, researchers are calling efficiency a “new fuel that by 2030 will be more important than oil,” writes the Climate News Network.

Efficiency has been relatively low profile because it isn’t sexy like solar panels, which have become cheaper every year. In the same period, efficiency has not become significantly cheaper, and it's not nearly as impressive a symbol. But there's a problem with energy from renewables: the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow and there's no good way to store their power.

cost of powerNegawatts are cheaper than megawatts. (Photo: ACEE)

But those Negawatts are always there. A new study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) and the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEE), also shows that Negawatts are cheaper; as little as 4.5 cents kilowatts per hour. So if you want to wean a utility off fossil fuels and reduce carbon emissions, it’s less costly for the company to pay customers to get efficient than it is to build new solar or wind capacity.

There's another big benefit from efficiency: it reduces peak demand and the pressures on the power industry that might lead to what’s been called a “death spiral” for power utilities. Those companies have to maintain the grid and power plants for peak demand and cloudy days, all while selling far less energy when the sun is shining.

Duck curveIf it looks like a duck ... (Photo: California ISO)

You can see it in the famous “duck curve” showing what's happening in California. Power use peaks now at in the morning and end of the day, but as more and more solar comes online, the power used in the middle of the day drops significantly. But companies need to make sure the power plants and the distribution system ramp up fast to deal with the evening peak, which is pretty much the same with or without the help of solar power. No wonder the utilities are freaking out.

Of course the people who benefit most from rooftop solar tend to be people with rooftops, meaning big bungalows in the suburbs. Young, urban or poor people living in apartments don’t have a lot of roof or the opportunity to install solar panels, and they'll probably pay more for electricity. So this becomes yet another subsidy to the American suburbanite.

However, efficiency works for everyone everywhere, around the clock.

This is why there's a sudden interest in energy-efficiency again. It's more dependable and cost-effective than renewables and it avoids so many of the problems. That's why the real solution to our carbon conundrum will be found in the Negawatts, not megawatts.

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.