Increasing energy efficiency – in transportation, in residences, in industrial and non-industrial businesses – is key to America’s maintaining a high standard of living while reducing our contributions to environmental deterioration. About half of total U.S. energy consumption, that in residences and in transportation, is controlled by individual consumers. Cheap energy has kept incentives for energy conservation too low; for instance, we respond to market signals and refuse to spend more to insulate a house than we get back through lowered energy costs, ignoring external pollution issues. Current politics makes a high carbon tax, which would increase energy prices and boost conservation, an environmentalist’s fantasy, but there is hope that corporate America will analyze greenhouse gas threats and act. Gary Smyth, head of research in General Motors’ science labs, shared GM’s vision in “The Week” magazine of September 7, 2012:
TW: What Is the Ultimate Goal of GM and Other Automakers? GS: “We want to take the vehicle out of the whole environmental debate. We want to significantly improve efficiency and get near zero emissions. That is the right thing to do – for the companies, for the nation, for the world.”
Such efficiency is one answer to massive, unwanted hydrocarbon “externalities” within our energy-intensive, petroleum-importing economy, and pursuing efficiency is not new. In the 1970s physicist Amory Lovins coined the phrase “soft energy path” and the concept of “negawatts” – meeting energy needs by increasing efficiency instead of increasing energy production. At that time, California pioneered strict energy-efficiency standards for buildings and appliances and set requirements for creating new energy resources that put energy efficiency first, renewable electricity supplies second, and new fossil-fired power plants last. As a result, California’s per capita energy consumption stabilized while the rest of the country continued up. Lovins’ Rocky Mountain Institute has boldly estimated that up to 75% of electricity used in the U.S. could be saved using efficiency measures that cost less than the electricity itself.
Specifics are available on how individuals, business and government can lower consumption without sacrifice, aka increase efficiency: Technology offers much low-hanging fruit, including using telecommuting and teleconferencing to cut business travel. Inexpensive devices are available that graphically show energy use in real time, informing consumers about costs and presenting opportunities to conserve. Labels publicizing energy efficiency are helpful, as are tax provisions which encourage green new construction and high-tech renovations of old structures. Retail businesses over-illuminate stores and blast cool air onto baking sidewalks; they’ll change when enough customers speak up against waste. Sharing or renting rather than buying new goods has become more common: see Time magazine’s excellent article, “Technology and austerity are making it less attractive to buy things. Welcome to the ‘sharing’ economy.”
Money is a wonderful incentive for efficiency, either money received for doing the right thing or money lost by doing the less-right thing. Today energy is too cheap, and the evidence is in our faces that climate change due to burning four cubic miles of hydrocarbons a year will lead to environmental bankruptcy. I have a dream, a dream that Exxon and its energy allies will realize that a high carbon tax would be good for business, and will use political muscle to implement the appropriate measures. Higher gas pump prices and resulting efficiency will reduce volume sold, but getting higher prices for less oil could increase Exxon’s profits. Slower consumption will also extend Exxon’s good years, years of having plentiful hydrocarbons that everyone needs.
I know energy guys who are more than smart enough to imagine that future, and to act on it.