Containerized rail shipping is very energy efficient, but it's increasingly losing ground to pollution-intensive interstate trucking.Photo: © Scott Barrow/Photo Network
Ever since Jimmy Carter appeared on television in a cardigan sweater telling people to turn off their lights, conservation has sometimes suffered an image problem. Many homeowners probably concluded that conservation means freezing in the dark. But in the form of efficiency, it actually means doing more with less. For example, superinsulated houses in the bitterly cold winter climate of Saskatchewan have been adequately heated with only the body heat of their occupants. More than 100,000 superinsulated homes now exist in Canada, Scandinavia, and the northern U.S. Good insulation has proved a simple but powerful energy-saving measure: Model conservation standards developed in the Pacific Northwest have reduced electric use for space heat by 40 to 50 percent.
A change to more efficient lighting saves on air conditioning as well as the electric bill, because inefficient lights add to a building’s heat load. New compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) use only one-fourth as much energy as standard bulbs to achieve the same illumination. While CFLs are expensive, they can pay their cost back in two to four years, and they last much longer than a standard bulb. But currently, only nine percent of U.S. homes have them.
Most homeowners still aren’t taking full advantage of efficient technology, either. A 1994 study examining surveys of participants in the Massachusetts Electric Company’s DSM program found that 90 percent of building owners were unwilling to install lighting retrofits with short paybacks and large efficiency gains until their local utilities gave them substantial incentive payments. After they installed retrofits with rebates and utility help, two-thirds said they would invest in lighting retrofits in the future without special incentives. The results seem to indicate that utility building efficiency programs acted like a foot in the door, which got the building owners more interested.
Lack of information is one of the biggest reasons why consumers aren’t able to fully exploit their potential energy savings. Government, utility and industries acting together can help lower the cost of getting information to consumers, much like labeling food products makes it easier to select the cheapest, most nutritional ones. New technologies on the horizon will greatly lower the cost of informing electric utility customers, demystifying the relationships between consumption and your bill.
In a subdivision near Little Rock, Arkansas, Entergy Corporation, a large utility, installed household-based computer chips linked to television cables. With this digital display system, customers get real-time electricity pricing, which discounts the power used in off-peak hours. The customer can program their home air conditioners and other appliances to turn on only during off-peak hours, when electricity is available at lower rates. The utility hopes to avoid having to build new electric power plants to meet the peak demand.
Landlord-tenant relationships are another institutional barrier to unlocking the full energy efficiency potential in buildings. Tenants usually will not invest in improving a building they don’t own. Building owners have some incentive to save tenants money if they can gain a competitive advantage in leasing by doing so. However, since electricity is just a small part of office costs-payroll costs are 160 times larger on average-demand for greater efficiency is likely to remain limited.
Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?
Transportation is another sector where former conservation gains are now imperiled by new trends. Says Prindle of the Alliance to Save Energy, “There have been regulations such as CAFE [Corporate Average Fuel Economy] standards for automobiles that have doubled the average fuel economy of the vehicle fleet in the U.S. However, in the last decade there’s been virtual gridlock on CAFE.
The automakers have succeeded in opposing any attempt to increase it from its last level.”
While cars increased their miles per gallon (mpg) performance 60 percent between 1973 and 1988, big gas-guzzling autos and SUVs are now reversing this progress. SUVs, minivans, and pickup trucks are subject to much less stringent requirements than cars, so the net effect has been an erosion of fuel efficiency.
That’s a disturbing trend. According to The New York Times, 1996 was the first year in which the cars going into junkyards got better mileage than the ones rolling off the dealer’s lots. Yet a hybrid car like the Toyota Prius, on the market in Japan today, can easily achieve 66 mpg and fuel cell cars promise to do even better than that (see “Beyond Batteries” in the November/December issue).
The American trucker may be immortalized in country music as a freeway cowboy, a symbol of independence on the open road, but the trucking industry has actually hurt U.S. energy independence. Trucking constitutes two-thirds of freight energy use, yet it is a far more polluting and less fuel-efficient way to move freight than pipelines, barges or railroads. From 1960 to 1990 trucking has tripled.
Rail is the most fuel-efficient alternative for moving both goods and people. There has been lots of energy-efficiency progress in rail, with a 2.8 percent per year average decline in energy usage for several decades. The fastest-growing segment of rail freight is intermodal, which puts containers on rails that can then be switched to trucks or ships.
High-speed passenger bullet trains, like those in use in Europe and Japan, are both cost- and time-effective with airplanes for trips under 600 miles. Unfortunately, a small relative drop in prices at the gas pump can translate into large increases in travel. Economists say that transportation energy demand varies much more with income than price. Energy Innovations claims that fuel pricing changes would have to be enormous to induce significant long-run reductions in energy use and emissions.
European mass transit is safe, clean, fast, reliable and relatively inexpensive. Yet, as in the far more auto-dependent U.S., transit continues to lose market share to the passenger auto. It seems that more government mandates and subsidies are needed to encourage more fuel-efficient autos, as well as to encourage consumer change to more efficient modes of travel-like rail. Also, people have to be encouraged not to ride alone in their cars. Half of the savings in fuel efficiency in cars between 1972 and 1992 were canceled out by decreases in vehicle occupancy.
Re-energizing Efficiency Efforts
What accounts for our dwindling national interest in conservation, despite its bright potential to save Americans energy, money and the environment? Energy analysts and economists suggest the real problem is that there are not enough economic incentives to take conservation seriously, even when it saves consumers money.
Market economies can only imperfectly account for the risks of irreversible, large-scale, long-term, and intergenerational impacts like global warming or risks of a new Persian Gulf War. Climate and other ecological emergencies suggest that we need to put sustainable goals ahead of market demand, and long-run survival ahead of short-run economics. Future generations are not represented in the market, and our choices as citizens may be different than as consumers. The Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) found that energy market prices fail to reflect 33 to 50 percent of total social costs. The OTA notes that past achievements of policy-driven energy-efficiency improvements at low cost refute the notion of a well-functioning market for vehicle efficiency.
Standard economic models usually will fail to take any account of changing technology. Yet, technological innovations, such as CFC recycling and alternative cleaning methods for semiconductors helped build an experience base which allowed industry to meet the phase-out goals at a modest cost.
There is a powerful lesson here. The global move towards sustainability represents a shift away from growth-and toward development. Growth-defined as the ever-increasing use of non-renewable resources-is unsustainable as the appalling costs of resource depletion and pollution grow ever more apparent. On the other hand, development, if it is defined as an increase in human potential, is a boundless pursuit. When it came to replacing Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), creativity was our greatest natural resource, allowing novel solutions to emerge where they did not formerly exist. A concerted national effort towards more energy efficiency would yield not only a full measure of what current technology can achieve, but it will likely also enlarge the boundaries of the possible.
ELAINE ROBBINS is a freelance writer based in Austin, TX.