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Special Report

The energy wake-up call

NCR Staff

They look like light bulbs on steroids or Star Trek gizmos. In the current debate over the nation’s energy future they have become icons, touted by the conservation side as one of the “Ten Things You Can Do to Make Your Home or Office Energy Efficient.” Compact fluorescent bulbs -- CFs -- are indeed the very model of energy efficiency. Install them in your home’s light sockets and you can rest easy knowing that the CF bulbs use 75 percent less energy than an incandescent or halogen bulb, which lose 90 percent of their energy as heat, only 10 percent actually producing light. Attach a timer to the light that shuts it off when you leave home in the morning, and you have added conservation to efficiency.

If each household replaced four regular 100-watt bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs, the output of 30 medium-sized power plants would not be needed, according to energy efficiency and conservation advocates. If everybody made better use of the energy being generated, they say, America would not need many of the 1,300 power plants that President Bush says demand will require over the next 20 years.

On May 17, Bush unveiled his national energy plan. The plan, which is likely to face significant scrutiny in Congress, calls for reducing regulations on the energy industry to encourage more output from coal-fired plants, recommends the construction of those 1,300 new power plants by 2020 and calls for new oil and gas exploration -- including some on federal lands like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska that environmentalists and many in Congress believe should be off-limits. The plan includes some conservation and energy efficiency steps, such as language that appears to favor ordering the auto industry to raise fuel efficiency standards and an order to reduce power consumption in federal offices.

In a major speech just before the plan was released, Vice President Cheney dismissed conservation as a way forward. In his speech he said, “Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy.”

The reaction to Bush’s plan from environmentalists and others concerned about a sustainable energy future ranged from dismay to anger. The National Audubon Society called it “a series of misguided proposals 100 years behind in their approach.” Charles Secrett, director of Friends of the Earth in Britain, said Bush’s plan and “other environmentally disastrous proposals will distance the United States even further from the main strain of environmental concern across the rest of the planet.”

Democrats give short shrift to conservation’s future in energy as well. “Democrats do not advocate energy policies that will require rationing or reductions in our standard of living,” says the House Democrats’ plan.

These recent moves punctuate a national debate that has been going on since California’s power troubles got headlines along with natural gas and auto fuel price shocks. There is a growing demand for power caused by population increases, a booming economy and widespread use of computers and peripherals. In meeting this demand, new and expanded energy resources must be developed. What’s in question are the ways and means to do this. The outcome of this debate will shape the economic, social and environmental outlook for our nation for decades to come.

During the last energy crisis in the 1970s, the nation failed to reach a consensus on how to deal with its energy future, choosing to snooze through what many saw as wake-up call. Now the alarm rings again. A look around reveals that some heard that earlier call and started to rethink and reshape their efforts.

CF bulbs are one of many measures featured on the Web page of Seattle City Light. This local utility claims that, because of conservation and efficiency strategies embarked upon more than 20 years ago, they have saved enough energy to power the city of Seattle for a year and a half.

Seattle City Light has committed to the long-term goal of meeting all of Seattle’s electricity needs with no new power plants and zero release of greenhouse gas emissions. This means ambitious new goals for energy conservation, new renewable energy and mitigating carbon dioxide releases. When fossil fuel is needed, the utility plans to offset the greenhouse gas emissions with transportation improvements, forestry programs that store carbon emissions in trees, and other efforts.

Bob Royer, spokesperson for the utility, agrees that the country needs to build more power capacity. But he said that conservation/efficiency efforts worked because they proved more popular with his utility’s customers. “These guys in the Bush administration are doing this manly stuff, putting their horns on to make it sound like conservation is for sissies. But we know from experience that conservation equals generation.”

Not a dirty word

Down the coast, city-run, publicly owned utilities in both Los Angeles and Sacramento have generally managed to avoid the rolling blackouts that plagued the rest of California by opting out of the deregulation experiment, choosing conservation as the way to go. “Over the last 10 years, we have conserved enough energy to save us the equivalent of having to build one huge new power plant,” said Mike Weedall, a manager at the Sacramento Municipal Utility District.

S. David Freeman, named by California Gov. Gray Davis to oversee the state’s response to its power crisis, said: “Conservation is not a dirty word in California.” Freeman sees conservation as not only the way to get through the summer but also a way to meet long-term energy needs.

A sensible energy policy would make use of conservation and efficiency measures, along with support for research into and development of alternative sources of energy, such as wind and solar. Bush’s budget cuts by 36 percent the amount devoted to renewable energy and efficiency programs.

“There is a stark difference between efficiency and conservation,” said Amory Lovins, cofounder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a research center on alternative energy in Colorado. “Conservation is a change in behavior based on the attitude, ‘Do less to use less.’ Efficiency is the application of technologies and the best practices to eliminate waste based on the attitude, ‘Do the same or more with less.’ Up to 75 percent of the electricity used today could be saved with energy efficiency measures, and those measures cost less than the electricity itself,” Lovins said. Polls and studies all indicate the public supports programs and measures to improve efficiency, according to Lovins.

For electricity, the alternative to efficiency and renewables is either more coal-fired energy plants or nuclear plants. Coal mined to stoke the proposed new plants means more ravaging of land and air. The technique of choice nowadays is called mountaintop removal mining, which involves shearing off the tops of mountains with explosives to get at the underlying low-sulfur coal. Mining wastes are then bulldozed into surrounding valleys and streams in Montana or West Virginia. Coal-fired energy plants produce carbon dioxide, a cause of acid rain and global warming. The nuclear industry has yet to solve the spent fuel disposal problem.

At a fuel banquet

Jesuit Fr. Al Fritsch is director of Appalachia-Science in the Public Interest in Kentucky. He calls the Bush administration’s energy plan a “smorgasbord that includes a few nutritious offerings, many that are junk and others that are outright poisonous, like nuclear energy. Energy is a precious resource,” he told NCR, “and one we’re consuming at a fuel banquet, not unlike the one in Jesus’ parable about Lazarus and the Rich Man. We consume for luxury commodities that, down the road, will be a necessity, especially for the poor ones outside the gate.”

Recently Fritsch has been working with churches in Appalachia to persuade them not to build enormous new buildings that are wasteful of energy. “Deeper spiritual discernment is what we need here, not higher ceilings and bigger stained glass windows,” says Fritsch.

Increasingly, the energy debate is couched in religious language. Asked if President Bush believed Americans should change their lifestyles in the face of a power crisis, White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer last month said: “That’s a big no. The president believes that it should be the goal of policymakers to protect the American way of life. The American way of life is a blessed one.”

At the same time, the Religious Witness for the Earth, a coalition of concerned clergy, sent the president a letter that called drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge a “sacrilege,” and labeled unsustainable energy practices like those proposed in Bush’s plan as “theft” from future generations. The Rev. Fred Small, co-chair of the group, said: “God calls us to be stewards of creation, not despoilers. When the president’s spokesperson declares our energy-guzzling lifestyle ‘blessed,’ he’s telling us to serve mammon not God.”

In 1977 during the last energy crisis, President Jimmy Carter, wearing a cardigan sweater against the lower thermostat settings in the White House, called energy conservation “the moral equivalent of war.” He promised to tax people for the “luxury” of driving gas-guzzlers and said, “Ours is the most wasteful nation on Earth.” Of course, Carter failed to win re-election, a lesson not lost on the present administration and Congress.

As Fritsch points out, the energy debate is indeed about values and morality. Like the rich man in the parable, we Americans “fare sumptuously every day” on the world’s resources. We are 5 percent of the world’s population. We own 34 percent of the world’s cars, and use 25 percent of its oil. There are eight cars per 1,000 people in China, and 750 per 1,000 here. And increasingly those cars are large sports-utility vehicles (SUVs), vans and big trucks, whose gas-guzzling means that actual fuel economy has declined since 1988. We use our cars for more than 95 percent of all the trips we take while public transportation struggles for a foothold.

A trip to the moon

The average car produces an annual five to eight tons of the global warming gas carbon dioxide. Each mile driven contributes a pound or more. Many of us with three or four decades of driving behind us have motored the mileage equivalent of a trip to the moon and halfway back. It’s the dark side of the American dream. One can do the arithmetic quickly and reflect on his or her personal contribution.

Yet speaking at a recreational vehicle plant during last year’s campaign, then candidate Cheney said: “If you drive a solar-powered car, you get tax relief. It’s goofy.” In an era of clean technology breakthroughs, many think what’s truly goofy is the idea that America should continue to be held hostage to an inherently limited, dangerously polluting and mostly foreign-owned energy source.

We could conserve enough gas just by keeping tires properly inflated to offset drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, activists point out, and raising fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks -- the best single step Bush could have taken, according to Sierra Club director, Carl Pope -- would provide enough savings to make us independent of foreign oil. In 1989, the Rocky Mountain Institute added up all the main U.S. efficiency options then available (automobiles, buildings, industries -- everything). The total would be equivalent today to 54 refuges’ worth of oil, at one-sixth the cost.

When presenting his energy policy, Bush called for “a new tone in discussing energy and the environment, one that is less suspicious, less punitive, less rancorous.” Fair enough, some would say, but how can his administration eliminate suspicion when it is so beholden to big campaign contributors and unresponsive to public sentiment? A CBS poll last month indicated that two-thirds of the public favor conservation. However, the oil, coal and utility mining industries, according to The Christian Science Monitor, were the top contributors to the Bush campaign for governor of Texas and among the top in his presidential race. Cheney is the former CEO of Halliburton Company, the world’s largest provider of products and services to the petroleum and energy industries.

Since the debate is steeped in religious terms, then maybe the cure to what some see as serious energy addiction is nothing less than radical individual conversion.

“Stewardship of the earth demands responsibility, humility and sometimes sacrifice,” said the Rev. Fred Small. “We must love the earth, our neighbors and our descendants more than we love comfort, convenience and status.”

More information on compact fluorescent bulbs and other energy conservation and efficiency measures can be obtained at: Rocky Mountain Institute, www.rmi.org. The Alliance to Save Energy, www.ase.org. Real Goods, www.realgoods.com. Seattle City Light, www.ci.seattle.wa.us/light. Religious Witness for the Earth is at www.religiouswitness.org.

National Catholic Reporter, June 15, 2001