Energy Conservation Examined

When President Bush unveiled his energy plan last month, environmentalists criticized the plan's failure to emphasize conservation. This raises the question of whether conservation can meet America's power needs. The evidence suggests that the notion is losing its luster.

Energy conservation was pitched in the 1970s on the premise that nature would run out of oil, gas and coal—perhaps as early as the year 2000. Conservation, environmentalists argued, would reduce energy consumption enough to match America's energy supplies. California was the state that most aggressively pursued this strategy.

That's why alarm bells sounded when California lost power last year. California produces less power per resident than any other state, but it suffered another round of rolling blackouts this past week. The benefits of conservation clearly have eluded its best practitioner.

At least one conservation proponent thinks he knows why: People need more guidance about conservation. “Part of it is that people get used to a certain lifestyle, and we still need a push for education,” says James P. Clift, policy director for the Lansing-based Michigan Environmental Council, whose members include the Friends of the Detroit River and the Sierra Club.

“We'd like to see a fee on all electricity to institute public programs for energy efficiency,” he says. The call for conservation subsidies has begged the question of why conservation has been unable to pay for itself, say some critical economists.

History of conservation

When measured by energy consumption, the conservation track record isn't persuasive. Steve Rosenstock of the Edison Electric Institute cites a study in which most consumers said they would not spend an extra $100 on an energy-efficient refrigerator, even if they could save $50 a year on their power bills.

Increased demand for energy in the United States has exceeded any reductions in consumption through conservation during the past 15 years. This surge in power use is fueled in part by the growth of enormously popular, energy-consuming computers, gadgets and toys.

Though improved technology has already made the United States the most energy efficient major country on earth, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, environmentalists continue to urge the government to force more energy efficiency through increased taxes and regulation while setting price caps to shield consumers from higher costs.

But price controls, which encourage increased usage, and conservation controls are polar opposites. Critics say this reveals the danger of viewing conservation as an end in itself.

Virginia-based energy consultant Glenn Schleede, who was an associate director for energy and science at the White House during the energy crisis of the 1970s, argues that people are not the problem; many energy-efficiency regulations are.

“Now there are rules for fluorescent lamps and air conditioners,” says Schleede, who also worked for former Michigan Rep. David Stockman at the Office of Management and Budget. “According to the Energy Department, approximately half the people who will use new air conditioners will never recover the costs. There were new regulations on water heaters that assume water heaters have a lifetime of 11.5 years—but most people move every seven years.”

Government-induced conservation tends to fail because “there's always an end that is the environment—not an individual human being,” he says.

Culture of conservation

There's little doubt that conservation has become a sacred edict in American business and culture. School children have reportedly berated their parents for not recycling. “Environmentalists have taken over all educational levels—look at high school textbooks,” Schleede says.

The number of trash bins and their precise usage is dictated by local governments. The legacy of conservation is everywhere from low-flow toilets to car pool lanes. Bush, who has resisted energy conservation as a primary energy policy, has proposed tax breaks for energy conservation and decided to force California residents to use ethanol as a fuel additive, though critics say the mandate could increase the cost of gasoline by five cents per gallon.

For many critics, there is no better proof of government's failure at energy conservation than the widely disliked low-flow toilets.

“They break,” says Sterling Burnett, a senior policy analyst specializing in energy and the environment at the Dallas-based National Center for Policy Analysis. “Because you have to flush so many times, they use almost the same amount of water. They're harder to keep clean and require more effort on the part of homeowner. All low-flow toilets did was create a black market for old toilets.”

But the conservation-oriented toilet has its defenders. “Some work,” counters the Michigan Environmental Council's Clift. “Once you look at new construction, given modern plumbing configurations, there are some very good products on the market.”

Most experts agree that new washing machine rules mean that washers will be side loading, rather than top loading. The Energy Department estimates that the cost of a new washing machine will rise 50 percent. Besides the higher costs, Burnett notes that side-loading washers also leak more frequently.

But businesses, once staunch opponents of such regulations, have become environmentalism's defenders. Michigan's washing machine manufacturer Whirlpool, for example, has embraced the new regulations.

“This landmark [efficiency regulation] agreement proposes energy and efficiency standards that would save consumers an estimated $25 billion in utility costs and reduce water usage by up to 11 trillion gallons over 30 years,” the company argues.

There is even a debate about the improvement in the nation's automotive fuel efficiency. Automobiles on the road today average 21.4 miles per gallon of gasoline, up from 13.4 in 1973. Even the sport-utility vehicle has improved—from 10.5 mpg in 1973 to 17.1 in 1999.

The automakers' supporters argue that the rise of gasoline prices did more to prompt consumers into buying more fuel-efficient vehicles than any government rules did. Industry critics reply that automakers would have never improved fuel economy by improving engine technology if the federal government had not passed new-vehicle standards in the mid-1970s.

Conservation continues to command loyalty among a core of diehard consumers, too. Detroit native Thaddeus Hejka, 48, who lives in Canton, swears by conservation. The lab technician for the city of Ann Arbor blames higher energy use on politicians.

“I don't see any strong leadership out there asking people to make sacrifices,” Hejka says.

His efforts at conservation have included formerly riding a bike to work, now driving a fuel-efficient Honda Civic for his longer commute and giving up eating meat “because meat consumption uses an enormous amount of energy in the production of the food—planting, harvesting, feeding.”

Clarkston resident Peter Riccardo agrees that individual efforts at conservation, like turning the lights out at home and work, are worthy. But he is concerned “when animals and forest and trees are put above people.”

“God has blessed this country with an abundance of natural resources, but I don't think conservation should be put above the needs of people,” says Riccardo, who works for DaimlerChrysler. “For example, drilling for oil in Alaska will create thousands of jobs and not hurt the environment, and we won't have to import oil anymore from other countries. If the energy's there and you can use it, you should be able to use it.”

Questioning conservation ethic

There is some evidence that conservation causes, rather than alleviates, an energy crisis. According to the National Petroleum Council, which advises the Department of Energy, the amount of natural gas deemed off limits by the government through land conservation is 213 trillion cubic feet (tcf). Americans use approximately 22 tcf of natural gas each year, and usage is expected to climb to at least 30 tcf annually. A whopping 137 trillion cubic feet are hidden in the Rocky Mountains alone ... an estimated 40 percent of all natural gas in the region.

The energy-consuming technology boom is leading some to rethink controversial alternative energy sources. Faced with rolling blackouts, a surprising 59 percent of Californians now support building more nuclear plants, according to a recent Field poll. Not one new nuclear power plant has been constructed in the United States since 1978.

There are those who claim Americans have a right to use energy without restrictions.

Businessman Brian Yoder, a Midland native, says he learned firsthand that, because it reaches the point of diminishing returns, conservation is ultimately bad business.

The former Central Michigan University graduate was director of product development for Internet service provider Earthlink until last year, when he left the Pasadena, Calif.-based firm to pursue other technology interests.

“If you look at the fees paid to Earthlink, maybe one penny of the $ 19.95 monthly fee goes to electricity costs—not even that much,” Yoder says. “The service being provided involves labor, support, equipment and intellectual development, so you're really paying for human labor, and that's what's in short supply. Turning off a coffee machine at night won't save the company or the consumer much money.”

Yoder, who worked as a contractor in the Dearborn scientific research laboratory for Ford Motor Co., contends that government regulations—including stiff penalties against employers who refuse to carpool—make conservation bad for business.

“To put energy savings on some pedestal really misses the point,” he says. “At Earthlink, saving energy is much lower on the list of priorities than providing superior customer service, maintaining servers, training, writing documents and working with developers.

“Eventually you realize that, when you drive to the recycling center, you're using gas and it's not really worth it in the long run.”

But University of Michigan graduate John Carroll, an Ann Arbor resident who will be attending law school in the fall, sees the lack of a conservation ethic as the problem.

“We're all very energy conscious,” Carroll says of he and his five roommates, “but it's tough because there are so many people using energy, and there's no awareness of conservation. I studied in England for a year, and it seemed like there were fewer outlets in each room, and people are not as reliant on electric can openers.”

Energy consultant Schleede sees the current debate as the logical culmination of the environmental movement.

“Environmentalists have turned that affinity for nature into a club and now they have millions of dollars for propaganda in the media and in public education,” Schleede says. “Electric utilities have learned that environmentalists are a threat, and they find it easier to cooperate and compromise—but that's giving into extortion. It's going to take at least a generation or two to turn it around.”

This 2000 article was published in the Detroit News, Birmingham News, Casper (Wyoming) Star-Tribune, Los Angeles Daily News and Buffalo News.

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