Making money by saving energy

One of Jimmy Carter's enduring political legacies resurfaced recently in Vice President Dick Cheney's harangue on energy policy.

Drawing on an image of conservationists as those who don sweaters and turn down the thermostat during the winter, the vice president intoned: "Conservation may be a personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy."

Cheney portrays a world of stark dichotomies: Real men, chastened by the discipline of the market, drill for oil and dig mines so that all of us can live ever more bountiful lives. Conservationists are dour moralists. They hunker down at home and denounce the innovative risk takers upon whose initiatives they depend. Cheney's rhetoric, just like Jimmy Carter's infamous cardigan sweater, distorts the goals and accomplishments of conservationists. In today's world these are the men and women whose risk taking and accomplishments are more likely to enhance the quality of everyday life. They merit far more of the support Cheney's corporate oligarchy has always drawn upon.

One wag has suggested that Cheney's energy policy reminds him of the householder who discovers a leaky bathtub and addresses the problem by increasing the water flow. Fortunately, homeowners are more cost conscious and imaginative than Cheney. Whether to turn up the faucet periodically or search for leaks will depend on the relative costs of each strategy. If the leak is tiny and hard to discover, most homeowners would simply turn the faucet on, but with large leaks it is more cost effective to fix the leak.

Both approaches can give us a warm bath, but energy policy today hardly allows or encourages cost effective choices. Public policy -- whether it be the half-century subsidies for nuclear research and development and oil depletion allowances or more recent "clean coal" research -- have all made it cheaper for most of us to turn the faucet up. Not only has the supply side received most Federal largesse, little effort is made to assess and charge consumers for the real costs of our leaks. Unlike water dripping out of a tub, burning coal and oil is already imposing health costs even if the greenhouse effect is a figment of environmentalist imagination. Coal-fired power plants produce 96% of the utility industry's sulfur-dioxide pollution, a source of acid rain, 93% of the industry's smog generating nitrogen-oxide pollution, and 99% of the industry's toxic mercury. Dan Becker of the Sierra Club properly reminds us not be fooled "by the Orwellian newspeak of industry's proposed "clean coal" -- it's a coat of greenwash trying to hide one of the most polluting energy forms around."Clean coal" only strives to reduce some of these pollutants -- they don't disappear."

Even with a playing field that is hardly neutral, scientists and entrepreneurs interested in conservation technologies have achieved remarkable results. An Army base in Louisiana saw its electricity use during peak hours fall by 43% after base managers installed fluorescent lights, low-flow shower heads, attic insulation, and new home heating and cooling systems. These savings were made possible by geothermal heat pumps, a home heating and cooling system that circulates fluids through underground coils but otherwise uses conventional technologies. The New York Times reports that: "the entire installation cost was covered by a private contractor that makes a profit by sharing in the government's cost savings for the first 20 years. The heat pumps, though still something of a novelty, are completely proven and save so much money that President Bush installed a system at his new ranch home in Crawford, Texas." The Energy Department also reports that the US government itself, with about 500,000 buildings, could reduce its energy consumption by one fifth and reap savings of nearly 20% per year of the total cost of such changes.

On an even more fundamental level, Jim Hightower pointed out in a recent article for AlterNet that generation of electric power itself once followed a totally different mode. After inventing the bulb, Thomas Edison developed a system of "small, localized generators controlled by the users of electricity. Each factory and office building had its own generator, and neighborhoods had small power plants that the locals shared." Unfortunately, Wall Street financiers were more interested in and could profit more from George Westinghouse's model of huge, central generating plants delivering power via long-distance grids. Though these grids are omnipresent today, they waste enormous amounts of energy in its transport. Hightower points out "The good news is that today inventors are resurrecting and updating Edison's model with sophisticated new systems of "micropower" that are ultra-efficient, clean, reliable, and inexpensive."

Reaction to Cheney's remarks on conservation was so hostile, even from many mainstream sources, that the administration now promises to include conservation in its energy program. Nonetheless, progressives should do the math before they cheer. Modest tax breaks for alternative vehicles hardly compensate for years of neglect of public transit and rich subsidies for the auto. Opening up more Federally protected lands for drilling and mining and limiting the liability for nuclear accidents will only build on long standing pattern of support for a costly and dangerous status quo.

Many American homeowners and small businesspeople would love to invest in alternative power sources and conservation techniques. Basic and applied research in this area remains woefully underfunded. In addition, except for those who enjoy substantial resources, homeowners and small businesses cannot afford the initial capital investment in the most promising technologies. They do not receive the kinds of tax write offs and subsidies enjoyed by our entrenched energy oligarchy.

A major commitment by government to upgrade its own house would help drive down the cost of new technologies, and modest tax credits for a part of up front costs would help homeowners avail themselves of these technologies. But before substantial changes in government priorities are likely, we must remind Washington just who is doing the real energy work and who is merely dining off public largesse.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. He invites comments at

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