By HOWARD N. SHAPIRO, Ph.D
In the recent political cycle, we heard a lot about the supply of energy. We were bombarded by the notions that we have abundant sources here at home (or in Canada) and that we should become self-reliant. As an advertisement for a popular snack once said: “Crunch all you want, we’ll make more.”
In the national and statewide debate, we mention the reduction of energy demand as an afterthought. “Oh yes, we could also control our need for energy,” we are told, but energy supply is viewed as the engine of prosperity.
I am here to tell you this is not true. The key to providing for our energy needs in a responsible way is to do everything possible to use less energy. Energy efficiency and responsible use of energy will be the empowering technology to get us to the energy future we seek. That future includes highly productive industries, a strong economy, and a safer world. Yet, we no longer use fossil fuels and all nuclear energy plants are safely decommissioned.
What I am advocating is using what we know about energy technology and energy efficiency to use less right now and buy time to get us to the energy future we seek.
Let’s recognize that the kilowatt-hour not used is the best kilowatt-hour we could possibly produce. There is zero environmental impact, zero cost, and zero depletion of precious resources. In fact, Amory Lovins has estimated that we could save half the fossil fuel and three quarters of the electricity we use now by taking full advantage of available energy efficiency technology.
Take the example of high efficiency lighting. Compact fluorescent and LED light bulbs reduce the energy used for lighting by over 80% as compared to conventional bulbs. They cost more upfront, but they last 10 times as long and the total cost of the electricity they use is substantially less. In the long run, they are actually cheaper than incandescent bulbs.
In the industrial sector, there is great potential for reducing energy use in production. By some estimates, there might be as much as a 20-25% reduction in energy use in manufacturing achievable with existing methods. Through energy audits and aggressive low-interest loan programs where the pay-back is based on the savings achieved, many companies could actually save money in the year they implement the improvements.
In transportation, fuel economy standards could be implemented that would result in doubling the average gasoline fuel economy using already available technologies. Within 5-7 years, we would see many hybrid gasoline vehicles on the road, and could be using 25% less fuel than we are today.
The utility companies in Iowa have programs to encourage energy efficiency, but their results are not reaching the clear potential. We need a commitment to reducing energy usage in ways that make perfect sense financially and will improve our economy.
This requires a more comprehensive approach and stronger leadership to set direction for us as a state and nation. We can mitigate the environmental impacts of energy production immediately by reducing the demand for energy. And, as noted, those reductions can be substantial.
We will surely use fossil fuels to generate electricity and power our vehicles in the near term. So we should do everything we can, within reason, to implement cost-effective ways to reduce the need for electricity or gasoline. Behavioral changes can and should be a part of the mix. But, let’s recognize that public policy can have a huge impact on this issue and encourage our political leaders to make the reduction of energy demand a high priority right now.
The author served 30 years of his academic career as a faculty member in Mechanical Engineering and administrator at Iowa State University, where he co-founded and directed the Center for Building Energy Research and started the Industrial Assessment Center. His extensive scholarly writings include co-authorship of the leading textbook in engineering thermodynamics, used at more than 100 institutions worldwide.