Lights Out: The Case for Energy Conservation - It Works, So Why Aren't We Using It?

By Beers, Stephen; Robbins, Elaine | E Magazine, January-February 1998 | Go to article overview

Lights Out: The Case for Energy Conservation - It Works, So Why Aren't We Using It?


Beers, Stephen, Robbins, Elaine, E Magazine


Something strange is happening in Times Square, something even stranger than Disney moving into an area once famous for peep shows and hardcore Triple-X movies. In a district where an explosion of neon lights and honking horns symbolizes the American attitude that energy will never run out, one of the nation's most energy-efficient office buildings is rising like a green beacon over the Great White Way.

The future of conservation technology presents a curious double image. At the same time that a corner of Times Square goes green, governments are cutting back energy funding, and consumers are backsliding into their pre-energy crisis gas guzzling. Is energy efficiency merely another retro fashion from the 70s, like disco dancing, platform heels and polyester? Or is it cutting-edge technology for the 21st century?

At one time, conservation seemed like a brute necessity. After all, we were running out of energy. But the near-collapse of the OPEC oil cartel in the early 1980s and reductions in oil prices that followed seemed to put an end to these concerns. Ronald Reagan, former pitchman for General Electric's all-electric kitchen, rose to the presidency arguing that America did not conserve its way to greatness. His administration ended up slashing every alternative energy program in sight except nuclear power.

How surprising, then, to see that in spite of dwindling federal support and soft energy prices, conservation gains have continued until very recently. "Over the last 20 to 25 years, the economy has grown more than 60 percent with virtually flat energy use," says Bill Prindle of the Alliance to Save Energy. "The energy productivity of the economy has become somewhat better, due to the wakeup call of the energy price shocks and shortages of the '70s, which caused people to think about energy in their purchasing practices and design efficiencies." Since then, more efficient building methods and industrial operations have become consolidated into standard engineering practice. Under the influence of consumer groups, state utility commissions mandated Integrated Resource Planning (IRP), forcing electric companies to consider all alternatives to meet demand, including cost-effective energy conservation measures.

Faltering Steps

In the last few years, though, the conservation drive has faltered. Cost-cutting pressure from Congress has eroded the support for federal energy programs. Looming deregulation is causing electric utilities to throw their conservation programs overboard. Low gasoline prices have robbed much of the motive for conserving fuel, with an explosion in demand for larger cars and, in particular, gas-guzzling sport-utility vehicles (SUVs). Highway speed limits of 55 miles per hour (mph), once the most visible symbol of a conservation-conscious America, have again been raised to 65 or 75 mph across the nation. Is energy efficiency or conservation simply irrelevant in this age of low oil prices?

Not if you consider the environment. The United States faces international pressure to cap the emissions of greenhouse gases to address our looming climate problem. So far, the United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands have held up their end of the 1992 Climate Change Convention Agreement. But U.S. carbon emissions in 1996 rose for the fifth straight year, to 3.3 percent, well above the level targeted by President Clinton. Now the European Union wants to up the ante - cutting emissions 15 percent from the 1990 level by the year 2010.

National security is another concern, as rising oil imports leave us vulnerable once more to price shocks and turbulent Mideast politics. Should there be another threat to the nation's oil supply like the Gulf War, we are woefully unprepared to come up with substitutes for imported oil. The U.S. military already spends more than $50 billion a year to police the Persian Gulf.

What often gets lost in the energy debate is a simple fact: Conservation is usually the cheapest way to meet new energy demand. …

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