The first thing to notice about energy policy is a moral question: does the U.S. have the right
to consume 25% of the world's energy resources? Unless one sincerely believes that might makes right, the honest answer has to be "no." Realistically, of course, it is hard to imagine significant change in our behavior on moral grounds.
Whether a reduction in our energy use comes from dwindling oil supplies, increased competition from other countries (China comes to mind), or increased costs, a reduction is coming. The interesting thing is that we accept and adapt more easily to such changes if we perceive them as inevitable and uncontrollable, rather than as conscious choices.
Let's pretend, though, that we are capable of conscious energy choices. Let's say that we choose a goal of energy sufficient to maintain our standards of living, rather than all the energy we can eat. What could the U.S. do to pursue energy sufficiency?
Goal setting, to start the discussion. Suppose we set a goal of an absolute reduction in our current energy use of 50% in 20 years. How hard would this be to achieve? The focus has to be on waste reduction, and with improved energy efficiency.
Build gas sippers, not gas guzzlers
The combined auto fleet standard is moving to 35 miles per gallon. Suppose we set a goal of 55 miles per gallon within 20 years? Technologically possible, but something would have to give: heavy or supercharged cars no longer would be common. Do we have a Constitutional right to drive a gas-guzzler? Not really, it is just where the largest profit margins have been, with much advertizing to match.
Driving more energy efficient cars could be marketed as the patriotic thing to do, even if this is hard to imagine. After all, filling the gas tank sends a lot of money abroad, as a form of foreign tax on driving. Wouldn't it be patriotic to keep more of that money here? Still, let's set the goal at 55 mpg, and challenge the auto industry to innovate.
Stop heating the outdoors
An enormous amount of energy is wasted in "leaks" from our buildings. The solution is better insulation, but how can this be done?
First, construction codes need to be stricter, calling for higher insulation values, and for "leak" tested buildings. It is not enough to insulate if the benefits leak away. Of course it is easier and cheaper to require better insulated construction for new buildings, so the problem of our existing housing/office/factory supply also has to be addressed.
Here, we could create the Insulate America Corps, modeled on the Depression era Works Progress Administration. Say a million people would be trained to install new insulation, and to conduct energy audits of our homes, apartments, offices and factories. This would be an investment with long-term benefits, as passive insulation can save energy for the life of the building. It also would put people to meaningful work.
Second, we need to rethink our comfort zones. Is it really necessary to cool offices in the Summer to the point where people wear sweaters to work? To heat offices in the Winter to the 70's? We need a serious effort to reset our thermostats, as the patriotic thing to do.
Fix the lights
Replace incandescent bulbs with newer technologies; and install automatic movement sensors which turn off lights when no one is in the room, and turn on lights when movement is detected.
Make things last
Planned obsolescence is a major energy waster. Once, washers and driers lasted 20 years or more. Now, most of the market is for machines which may last 5-8 years. Setting new durability standards for major appliances would be a significant energy saver. Washers and driers should be built to last: a 25 year warranty. Cars should be built to last: a 15 year/200,000 mile warranty. Refrigerators should last 20 years. Air conditioners should last 15 years. And so on. We need to think long-term, and support new technologies which produce durable products.
Change the subsidies
Ethanol: Congress chose subsidies for ethanol, but there are at least two problems with ethanol production. One, there is not much net energy savings in ethanol production, a point well-documented by now. Two, the diversion of corn to fuel use increased the price for food corn. We need to remove our ethanol subsidies and let the free market determine its place in the energy picture.
Coal: Coal will remain a major energy source for a long time, but coal is not "clean," either in extraction or in use. Reducing demand for coal by reducing our energy use will benefit the environment.
Oil and gas: Domestic oil production has been declining for some time. As we recently learned in the Gulf of Mexico, deep water drilling can be risky. Alaska's reserves are a tiny part of the need, even if the environmental impacts are ignored and higher production is allowed. Shale and tar-sands are waiting for the technological break-through which will make production both economical and clean.
Long ago, Congress adopted incentives for oil and gas production which no longer (never?) make sense. The depletion allowance offers tax deductions based upon the volume produced, on the policy that once oil/gas is produced, the companies have less in the ground in future profits. The depletion allowance compensates companies for their depletion of the resource. Today, this policy makes no sense at all. We need to conserve our oil and gas resources, not exhaust them.
We should abolish the depletion allowance and replace it with an exhaustion tax. This would be an incentive for the energy companies to support energy conservation, to prolong their profits.
Nuclear power: The nuclear power industry is not cost-effective. It has been supported by a long list of subsidies and incentives. Congress has limited their liability in case of accidents, and provided huge loan guarantees for new plant construction. Many observers have noted that the nuclear industry is price-competitive only with significant government support. We need to eliminate the liability caps, any subsidies, and the loan guarantees. Other forms of energy should receive government support instead. Which ones?
Renewables: Renewable energy sources, such as solar power and wind power deserve the massive government support which up to now has gone to fossil fuel and nuclear power. Why, because solar and wind are renewable resources, and the U.S. has enormous potential for these sources. This does not rule out support for other new technologies.
The focus on solar and wind is practical: government support would make a significant difference right now for our energy future. A combination of renewable energy farms and small decentralized solar and wind installations, must be part of our energy strategy. Shortening the grid by decentralizing power plants reduces the energy lost in transmission lines, too.
A peek at the consequences
What could be some of the benefits of adopting the goal of 50% energy use reduction?
o It would drive research, innovation and new technologies, giving us renewed leadership in the market.
o It would foster new businesses and industries.
o It would employ millions, many of whom have been discarded and excluded through the recent recession.
o It would reduce our interest in the Middle East and other oil and gas resource centers, reducing our strategic vulnerability and the temptation for military interventions abroad.
o It would improve efficiency and reduce waste throughout the economy.
o It would pay off in great long-term savings.
o It would be in our self-interest.
And finally, we could come back to the moral question. It would be the right thing to do for a small planet. It would be sufficient for a high quality of life, without being wasteful or destructive. Some thoughts for the conversation...