Americans have been on a century-long energy spending spree. From automobiles to architecture, as long as energy costs have stayed affordable relative to our incomes, neither wastefulness nor environmental implications figured into our buying and building decisions. But with skyrocketing energy costs, people are beginning to rethink that approach. Unfortunately, the inexpensive and immediate fix for our energy problems-energy conservation-is mostly overlooked in favor of high-cost energy production solutions, most of which are slow to implement and some of which are counterproductive at best.
For example, some sectors continue pushing for corn ethanol or nuclear power. Corn-derived ethanol has become a Midwestern boondoggle, requiring huge subsidies and heavy petrochemical inputs. While nuclear energy is carbon-free, it is a power source with a limited future and very high stakes. Analysts have suggested that fissionable uranium, the mined nuclear fuel, will be used up by the end of this century. Nuclear power plant byproducts can be used to build nuclear weapons. Spent nuclear fuel remains radioactive for thousands of years, and there is historic evidence of nuclear power’s environmental and human hazards. The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant explosion in the Soviet Union melted a reactor, poisoned thousands of people, filled agricultural soil with radioactive cesium and strontium, and spread a vast radioactive plume across Russia and Europe. The Chernobyl disaster, likely caused by operator error, showed how what some are promoting as our best stopgap power source can fail, with horrifying consequences.
While it poses no such threat, renewable energy currently makes up less than 7% of our energy mix, and expanding that capacity would be costly and time-consuming. Photovoltaic systems are becoming more efficient, but they are still expensive compared to natural gas or coal. Wind power compares favorably to conventional fuels at around three to eight cents per kWh, but requires the construction of a large new transmission infrastructure to carry electricity from turbines to end-users. Renewable heating and cooling systems, such as geothermal or solar thermal, require expensive conversions of existing appliances. While it is within the realm of possibility to achieve a totally renewable energy system in the U.S. and across the globe, it will take years, and trillions of dollars, to rebuild all of the systems needed to maintain our current lifestyles.
But, we needn’t rely on dangerous or politically expedient schemes to get a safe and renewable energy infrastructure. Conservation would shorten the time needed to convert to renewables and would negate the need to replace 100% of our current power load. In fact, conservation is so easy and has such positive economic and health outcomes, it should be considered a top national priority and the essential first step in any new energy investment.
There are two ways to conserve: lifestyle changes and technology. Lifestyle changes are easy to make, and include such strategies as walking rather than driving, building smaller homes that are easier to heat and cool, turning off unused appliances, and traveling via air less often. Technological innovation conserves by delivering the same product performance more efficiently. From cars to light bulbs to computers, there are standout energy performers on the market. The Alliance for Climate Protection states that, “The US will be able to reduce our [energy] demand as much as 30% through efficiency” (wecansolveit.org).
There is no doubt that a conservation lifestyle can be a big change from our current habits. We’re used to living, working, and playing in far-flung locations; many of us have become accustomed to traveling abroad on a whim, and we fill our multiple cars and homes with electronic gadgetry. Those who take steps to conserve may find that our social and physical infrastructures are not terribly conducive to energy-efficient lifestyles. They may wish to advocate for pedestrian-oriented development, expanded bikeways, new urban streetcars, and fast cross-country and transnational rail systems. A long-term renewable energy tax credit would be a big help. Perhaps it’s also time to return to neighborhood schools, to abolish traveling sports leagues for kids (at least until everyone has their own solar-powered electric minivan in their garage), and to subsidize regional food farming and new corner grocery stores.
Conservation works. It leads to healthier and happier people, a better economy, and more cohesive communities. By actively stepping down our power needs today, we’ll be that much closer to a sustainable energy future.
The Complete Guide to Reducing Energy Costs, by the Editors of Consumer Reports, Consumer Reports, 2006.
The Home Energy Diet: How to Save Money, by Making Your House Energy-Smart, by Paul Scheckel, New Society Publishers, 2005.