TCS Daily

Why Energy Conservation Fails

By Herbert Inhaber - April 26, 2002 12:00 AM

Harry Reid, the assistant Democratic leader in the Senate, recently built a 5,000-square-foot house in Searchlight, Nev., his hometown. This ranks it within the top 1% of homes in terms of size. Sen. Reid said that it would replace the trailer he has been using as his home address. His new abode, while undoubtedly more comfortable, would use a lot more electricity and natural gas than the trailer.

Sen. Reid's living arrangements would not be of much concern except that, as he moved into his super-sized home with its much bigger energy bills, he was simultaneously helping to lead a fight in the Senate to increase conservation. The official Democratic bill would have required a sharp boost in automobile mileage from the present 27.5 miles per gallon, increased efficiency standards for air conditioners and other appliances, and a host of other measures designed to save energy. But as far as some Democratic senators are concerned, the motto is, "don't do as I do, do as I say".

Would the bill have actually reduced total energy use in this nation? When Vice President Richard Cheney, in a speech in Toronto in May 2001, said that while energy conservation may be a personal virtue, it could not form the basis for a national energy policy, he was, as Elie Weisel would put it, speaking truth to power. The power he was addressing was the hold that the concept of conservation has over many Americans. According to this belief, greater efficiency could solve most, if not all, of the energy problems facing the nation.

Within a few days, I counted about 19,000 mentions on the Internet using the words "Cheney" and "conservation. Most of the postings were highly critical. But in spite of ever-increasing federal, state and local rules and regulations to conserve energy in washing machines, computers, hot water heaters, houses, light bulbs, cars, vans, trucks and a host of others, national energy consumption increases almost every year.

Part of this is due to our increasing population, but the rules and laws were designed to decrease total energy use, not merely decrease the rate of increase. The vice president was like the little boy who, when confronted with a man's hairy chest and a protruding behind, noted that the emperor had no clothes.

A reason why government energy-saving programs have generally failed is the difference between energy efficiency and conservation. Energy efficiency measures how much energy bang we get for the buck. If I can go twice as far on a gallon of gasoline than I could before, I have improved its energy efficiency by a factor of two. For the nation as a whole, efficiency is defined as how many goods and services we get for a unit of energy used.

Conservation, on the other hand, is a reduction in the total amount of energy used by a nation, state or other political subdivision. Conservation is talked about almost as much as the weather, but, to modify what Mark Twain noted, doing something to really achieve it would be too painful.

Greater energy efficiency can lead to greater total energy use, or less conservation. The English economist Stanley Jevons first noted this over a century ago. He investigated the use of coal - the energy currency of the day - in steam engines. He found that as engine efficiency increased, more coal was used, because it was now economical to use ever more engines.

In the same way, I don't buy many strawberries in the winter, because they are expensive. In the summer, I gorge, because they are so cheap.

Economists have long noted that the best way to reduce total energy use is to raise its price, either by the dreaded T-word, the term that dares not speak its name -- or other means. But this poses a moral problem for the environmentalists who advocate this. The burden of increased prices would fall most heavily on the poor. Energy makes up a larger proportion of their budget than that of the middle class. And we can be sure that Bill Gates doesn't worry too much about his monthly electricity bill.

I practice conservation myself. I carefully avoid heating the rooms I am not occupying, reducing my bills. With the money I save, I can buy other goods and services, most of which involve some use of energy. But is there any reason I should get a check from the government or subsidies for this virtue? Not any more than if I help a little old lady across the street.

Herbert Inhaber is president of Risk Concepts, an energy consulting firm in Las Vegas. He is the author of Why Energy Conservation Fails, (Quorum Books, now in paperback).

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