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Energy efficiency, reconsidered?

We baited our hook last week with "Five Ways to Look at Energy Efficiency." The column used a set of five brief essays assembled by The New York Times in "The Siren Song of Energy Efficiency," to ponder whether EE is what it's cracked  up to be. Just the notion of questioning that mantra was provocative.

The thesis, in truncated form: "Does the quest for efficiency distract from more effective approaches to cutting carbon output? What can consumers do that would be more effective?" The five essayists ranged from "sure we could live well only on what we already waste, but turning efficiencies into environmental gains is difficult" to "the cheaper something costs, the more we use" to "we're better off taxing energy and not striving for efficiencies, if we want environmental benefits, according to economics." 

Let's go fishing!

Readers went for the ... I mean, they responded.

First, on the logic of the many points made these essayists, reader Jack Ellis wisely rejected the false dichotomy of either/or.

"The correct answer is to do both," Ellis wrote. "I agree that standards can lead to economically inefficient use of resources, but on the other hand, appliance manufacturers (and particularly auto manufacturers) sometimes need a nudge before they'll produce more energy efficient products so that consumers actually do have a choice. However, without higher prices, consumers might use more efficient vehicles to drive more miles while keeping their fuel expenditures flat."

Another reader, who withheld his/her name, seemed to suggest that discipline and a clear goal could mitigate the so-called "rebound effect" of letting efficiencies and dollars saved simply excuse greater use of the resource in question.

"Limiting the rebound effects to the arena in which the original impact occurs—for example, driving more miles because one has bought a highly efficient vehicle or using more electricity because one has solar panels—is asking for trouble," our correspondent wrote. "Rather the issue should be reviewed based on money. Saving a dollar means that the dollar will be spent or invested elsewhere. The benefits of efficiency only occur (saving the planet from climate change, ending fossil fuel use) if one uses the saved money in combination with investing in low climate impact renewable energy."

Another anonymous reader touted the benefits of cheap, abundant energy and its unfettered use, though the writer seemed to miss the relevance of energy efficiency to his thesis.

"One of the issues missing in this article is the impact that higher energy prices has on the working man who just goes to work and back every day," our reader wrote. "Raise fuel prices for his work vehicle and you are going to hurt him big time.

"The mobility afforded by private vehicles made it possible for people to live away from their job location for a better quality of life," our reader continued. "This mobility made it possible for some to work their jobs while living some place where they have room to build a workshop or have a garage to tinker in and possibly develop a new product that spawned a new business.  Mobility made it possible for people to move to other places with ease, expand their horizons, and diversify the country.  Does anyone not wonder why America is frequently considered the land of innovation?  I venture that it is the mobility afforded by low fuel prices."

So, under this thesis, I'd venture, highly efficient autos would only contribute to the "working man" economy. (Dare we mention that half the workforce is missing here?) Roughly, if you increased efficiencies in the fleet and charged more for fuel, you might have a wash financially, with lower emissions. Need I add that I'm "not an economist"? I wonder who's done that calculation?

Another anonymous writer seemed to adopt a "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" policy approach to efficiencies, finding virtue in insulation and malfeasance in lobbyists—that is, lobbyists for clean energy, not lobbyists for fossil fuels.

"Seems to me the real bang for the buck on energy efficiency lies with heating and cooling," our correspondent wrote. "Simple measures like more insulation in the attic or a more efficient air conditioner/furnace, when the old one needs to be replaced. However, on a relative scale, such investments are a bit more than the average consumer's budget can handle. That is where help from the government (e.g., tax breaks) would be helpful. Too bad that legislation has expired.

"However, the average consumer does not have the time to lobby Congress, as they are too busy trying to earn a living," our correspondent continued. "Instead, the politicians are bought and sold by the green energy mafia, with literally billions of dollars completely wasted on ineffectual solutions (renewable energy) to a largely trumped-up problem (global warming)."

In closing, I'd note that despite some leaps in logic or just plain gaps, these remarks certainly presage many threads we'll hear this summer as the nation decides on its next president and whatever we can glean about their respective energy policies. And we'll decide the makeup of Congress, in part, on energy as much as any other issue before the nation.

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily

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