When the colonists of Virginia depleted their cropland, they relocated westward. When prospectors found gold in the Rockies, they rushed to exploit it without a thought to the environment. There is no Wild West anymore. As it becomes increasingly clear that our energy supply is finite and unpredictable, the United States must make a clean break from its history of squandering resources. To brainstorm an action plan, DISCOVER teamed up with the National Science Foundation, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE-USA), and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) to sponsor a series of briefings on Capitol Hill. Eight leading thinkers offered visions of how to make our energy supply cleaner, more efficient, and more abundant (for video, check out the event homepage). Here is their expert analysis.
1. EMBRACE RADICAL EFFICIENCY
Plan of Action Make our economy more productive by using energy more intelligently. A stunning 57 percent of our energy ends up wasted, according to James D. McCalley, electrical and computer engineer at Iowa State University. Investing in energy efficiency would be equivalent to tapping an entirely new source of energy. “If you green the electrical system and then electrify the transportation system, you also have a very good start to the solution to our global warming problems,” McCalley says.
The Science Residential and commercial energy consumption accounts for 72 percent of all electricity and 13 percent of all fossil fuels consumed in this country, says Vivian Loftness, an architect at Carnegie Mellon University. That means buildings offer huge potential for energy savings. Natural daylight can replace 30 to 60 percent of our current energy consumption for lighting, natural ventilation can reduce the energy used for air-conditioning by 20 to 40 percent, and better use of natural shading could cut another 10 percent. Passive solar heating eliminates 20 to 40 percent of heating costs.
“Conservation is a new supply. As long as it’s relegated to the far end of the equation, we’re never going to get to where we need to go,” Loftness says. More stringent energy regulations could save 50 to 75 percent of the cost of running appliances and equipment. Some urban planning, modest transportation initiatives, and better application of off-the-shelf technologies could also drastically cut fuel use. For instance, refrigerators today consume about 75 percent less energy than they did in 1972 due to federal and state efficiency standards.
The Policy Loftness and others recommend that the federal government encourage efficiency through tax incentives and stricter standards for appliances, vehicles, and buildings to meet the goals of the American Clean Energy and Security Act. That Senate bill sets a goal to reduce emissions by 83 percent from 2005 levels by 2050 and requires electricity suppliers to use renewables and electricity-saving measures for 20 percent of their demand by 2020. According to Lowell Ungar, director of the Alliance to Save Energy in Washington, D.C., stronger building codes that would improve insulation, heating and cooling, and lighting could reduce building energy demand by 6 to 7 percent by 2030. “Buildings use about two-fifths of the energy and are responsible for about two-fifths of the carbon in this country. Building codes are the essential policy tools here,” he says.
The government could also help by promoting consumer education about energy-efficiency options and by broadening the labeling of consumer products to show the energy costs of using such products, as is done now with the EnergyStar program. It should encourage urban infill, in which underused parts of our cities (instead of areas on the fringes) are redeveloped for business and residential use. This would help curtail suburban sprawl and the associated auto miles traveled while also making our cities more compact and walkable.
In 2005, residents of Portland, Oregon—where regulations encourage infill development—emitted 35 percent less carbon dioxide than the average resident of the country’s 100 largest metropolitan areas. Loftness estimates that infill development could cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 240 million metric tons. It could reduce vehicle miles traveled by 30 percent by 2050, other studies have found. Encouraging greater investment in—and use of—mass transit would also help improve efficiency, as would carbon cap-and-trade legislation.