The Next Phase in Energy Conservation

May 21, 2008

Energy has certainly been in the news lately. The current crisis is focused on the soaring prices of gasoline and diesel fuel, but they are only symptoms of the larger issue …

Energy has certainly been in the news lately. The current crisis is focused on the soaring prices of gasoline and diesel fuel, but they are only symptoms of the larger issue …

Coal is too dirty to burn, and it will take a decade to commercialize the FutureGen technology hoping to separate CO2 and pump it into empty oil caverns to protect the planet from global warming. China is in the process of constructing more than 500 coal-fired power plants to fuel its growing demand for electricity; we have delayed or cancelled more than 20. So, we export coal to many countries, which only depletes our supply and raises prices, doubling since last year, in some cases. St. Louis-based Peabody Energy Corp. shipped more coal overseas in the first 6 weeks of 2008 than it did all of last year, says Chief Executive Gregory H. Boyce. That exports our air pollution that eventually crosses the Pacific and falls back on North America.

Nuclear power is too expensive, and is getting more so each week as we delay and delay any permanent storage of the radioactive waste and refuse to mine domestic uranium. We haven’t built a nuclear power plant lately, and most of our technology lies in operating legacy systems while other countries, like France, forge ahead with plans for a new uranium enrichment plant in Idaho.

Natural gas is nice, but we must import our increasing marginal needs; no one wants a liquid natural gas terminal anywhere near them, which drives up its cost. Hydro-dams are restricted because there is nowhere possible to build any new really big ones in North America as they are doing in China and Africa.

Oil must be reserved for personal and commercial transportation until the hydrogen-fuel-cell engine can replace the internal-combustion workhorse. We must import 12 million barrels per day—nearly two-thirds of our needs. No need to mention the obviously skyrocketing oil prices from shifts in world demand that are growing much faster these days while production is peaking. Why should oil suppliers increase output when rising prices can provide all the increased revenue and profits they want? Shifting to hybrid and electric vehicles will only add to the demands for electricity from the objectionable sources as above.

Biofuels are coming, mostly from corn-derived ethanol, but at the expense of other agriculture crops—a scenario that will create food shortages and higher prices at dinner.

Renewables have their place, but they have their limitations, too. Solar power still is costly, requires a lot of space, and doesn’t work at night or in cloudy climates, so backup power must be available. Wind generation mucks up the landscape and requires all those pesky new transmission lines and coordinators to synchronize them with the grid; it also kills too many birds. And, the wind only blows at certain places at certain times, so backup power must be available—but I repeat myself. The grid itself is in transition, from a collection of state-controlled reliable local and regional systems interconnected for mutual support to an international monster that will require the wisdom of Solomon to control and coordinate to prevent a local outage from cascading to a continental disaster. That challenge has been outsourced by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC).

Meanwhile, national economic growth is connected in lock-step with energy consumption, and no one wants to be responsible for throttling the economy, do they? Congress chips away at these issues one at a time through its several committees that are driven by local political conditions back home. The states are taking a variety of wide-ranging responses. Consequently, some proposed solutions are state driven and some are federally driven. So, where do we go from here?

There are only two ways forward; as Yogi Berra said, sometimes you come to a fork in the road and you have to take it: One is increasing supply and the other is reducing demand. Some people are saying it’s time to seriously begin decoupling economic growth from energy consumption because the likelihood of continuing as-is looks slim (and may be getting slimmer). In fact, they would like to see economic growth driven by efforts to consume less and less energy—just the opposite of present conditions.

You could begin with a revolutionary idea spawned at the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), the national trade association of shareholder-owned utilities representing approximately 70 percent of the U.S. electric-power industry. Last year, EEI formed the The Edison Foundation (TEF) ( Its first venture is called the Institute for Electric Efficiency, described as “A forum to promote energy-efficiency practices among electric utilities; promote the sharing of information, ideas, and experiences in energy efficiency in the power sector; and develop a resource base of effective business models and options.” If it’s to be taken literally, this seems like a sea change among the investor-owned electric utility industry. One can only hope that investors who depend upon reliable utility dividends and increasing stock prices have also “seen the light” and look forward to decoupling economic growth from energy consumption. If they have a problem with that, The Institute replies: “Electric efficiency is—and will continue to be—a critical part of the solution to meeting the rising demands for electricity while also addressing climate change and other environmental issues associated with the generation of electricity.”

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