The Hive

The Greatest Energy Saver of Them All

The one thing that will reduce U.S. energy use more than all Priuses, CFLs, and solar panels combined.

I’ll conclude this “Efficient Life” series with thanks to readers who commented, e-mailed, phoned, and showed up at the Washington, D.C., event—and with a plea for paternalism. I learned a great deal about the opportunities for (and barriers to) greater home-energy efficiency. All the new consumer products, all the incentives, all the carrots and sticks and nudges that the energy industry is rolling out are great. But as Lane Burt of the National Resources Defense Council said at our event in D.C., what we need more than anything is better standards.

Think about cars. You can become a hypermiler, fill your tires to the optimal level, and take advantage of tax breaks for hybrid drivers. But that’s just tinkering around the edges. If you really want to improve the energy use of the vast U.S. vehicle fleet, you have to mandate higher efficiency standards, as the Obama administration has done. The industry will squawk and object, and then engineers will get to work. The technology to propel vehicles down roads at 35 miles per gallon is available. It just needs to be refined, improved, and scaled-up. I have no doubt that in five years, the combination of high mileage and high performance will be the default car option rather than the expensive one.

The same holds for home-energy use. I was slow to install compact fluorescent bulbs. But when the energy-assessing Moldovan brothers did swap a bunch out, I adjusted. And, voilà, my electricity costs are going down. The Trickle Saver, which powers down computer accessories that aren’t being used, likewise spares me the arduous chore of flipping switches. The beauty of standards is that the efficiency is built into the product.

Fortunately, higher standards are on the way. The Bush administration set into motion the phasing out of incandescent lightbulbs—which is pushing more people to use more-efficient compact fluorescents and is pushing bulb-makers to make incandescents more efficient. The Obama administration is continuing the trend, with the Department of Energy issuing new standards for water heaters and the Environmental Protection Agency promulgating standards that require monitors to be more efficient.

But there’s more to be done, especially in the area of building materials, supplies, and codes. As a consumer of energy, manager, and financing source, the government has a great deal of leverage over the housing and construction markets. Think of all the schools, office buildings, army bases, courthouses, and state universities. If the government were to require the use of more-efficient materials, it would provide a huge spur to the industry. Yes, taxpayers would be responsible for the higher costs of such products in the short term. But in many instances, taxpayers would reap the benefits of lower energy use in the long term.

There are several objections to higher standards.

First, mandating that builders use insulation or roofing with a higher R-value, or outlawing the sale of refrigerators that chew through too much electricity, will certainly boost costs. When new technologies come out, they’re frequently much more expensive than the existing standards. That’s to be expected—the investment in building the factories, ironing out processes, etc., was done years, even decades, before. But once companies automate, build to scale, and refine their processes, the new products go from niche to mass—and the price comes down. And you don’t need Moore’s Law to do it. Catalytic converters were very expensive to engineer and make when their use was first mandated in the 1970s. Today, not so much. A typical 2010 model car comes with a set of bells and whistles as standards that were expensive options 20 or 30 years ago—sound systems, automatic windows, air conditioning, rear-window wipers, etc. In addition, many—though certainly not all—investments in energy efficiency pay for themselves over the years in reduced energy use, especially if energy costs are going to rise in the future. And that’s not taking into account the other “costs” such investments help avoid. If you think global warming is a problem, if you’d like to avoid building new electricity transmission wires in your community, if you don’t want wind turbines off Cape Cod, or if you’re bummed that you might not be able to get oysters this year because of the Gulf oil spill, you’ve got to start thinking how we can design systems and products that will consume less energy.

The second objection is that standards reduce choice. What if people really want incandescent bulbs or only like to drive Hummers? Why should the government tell them they can’t buy dumb products that are expensive to use? I’m sympathetic to the argument but am also generally in the camp that excessive choice contributes as much to economic inefficiency and consumer sadness as an absence of choice does. (Have you checked how many different varieties of Pringles and Oreos there are? And are any actually better than the original?) What’s more, higher standards are not incompatible with a variety of consumer experiences. By the end of this decade, there will be sports cars, pickups, and even stupidly giant mechanized war vehicles that provide the same oomph to their drivers as today’s models do—but with higher mileage. Mandating that televisions and computer screens use less energy hasn’t exactly been a drag on consumer choice. The prices of these products keep falling as their quality and variety improve.

Third, standards are paternalistic and arbitrary. Well, yes. Standards and codes generally are. And our building codes require all sorts of things that arbitrarily add expense to home construction and maintenance. When we did an addition on my home, the town of Westport, Conn., deemed the distance from the floor of our screen porch to the floor of the kitchen to be dangerously high. Before the town would sign off on the addition, we had to add a useless extra step. That’s the type of paternalism that builds resentment, adds cost, and doesn’t offer any payback, or any greater safety to neighbors, visitors, or fellow citizens. And yet the town had nothing to say about the roofing shingles, or the type of insulation we used, or any of a half-dozen comparatively minor adjustments that could have been done before completion that would have made the house more comfortable, lowered energy bills, and proved a benefit to visitors, neighbors, and fellow citizens. Governments routinely restrict choice and behavior for the sake of saving resources and the environment. Westport, in fact, last year banned plastic bags. (Guess what? Nobody cares!)

Do I have too much faith in engineers? They haven’t failed us yet.

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