By DAVID R. BAKER
San Francisco Chronicle
October 10, 2005
Fuel prices stuck at record highs have forced government officials to broach topics many have avoided for years: energy efficiency and conservation.
The very words used to conjure images of Jimmy Carter bundled in a sweater, imploring his oil-shocked nation to use less. Mindful of the one-term president's fate, politicians have focused ever since on increasing America's supply of energy, not cutting its use.
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita changed that, at least temporarily. With gasoline staying near $3 a gallon and natural-gas prices expected to rise more than 70 percent this month, even President Bush has begun touting conservation and efficiency - approaches his administration once treated with skepticism.
Estimates of how much electricity and fuel America can save vary, and many energy economists warn against putting too much faith in the forecasts.
Even those who preach efficiency's virtues doubt it can solve America's long-term energy problems alone. But it could be a key part of the solution, keeping energy demand from exploding while the country finds new sources of power or fuel.
America uses energy more efficiently today than it once did. All the same, there is room for improvement.
"At some point, efficiency only gets you so far," said author Paul Roberts, whose book "The End of Oil" examines ways to meet future energy needs. "But we're not anywhere close to that point."
Many developed countries burn much less energy per person than does the United States. The typical Dane, for example, uses half as much energy in a year as the average American, according to U.S. government data.
Lester Lave, an economics professor at Carnegie Mellon University, said much of the savings came from tougher building codes in Denmark, requiring more insulation. Efficiency hasn't cramped the Danes' lifestyle, he said.
"I don't know if you've been to Denmark," he said, "but they're not running around barefoot."
California has become, for many conservation and efficiency converts, both a model of government leadership and living proof that using less works.
At the height of the state's electricity crisis in 2001, Californians cut their power use by more than 12 percent. While the average American uses 50 percent more energy now than in 1975, the average Californian uses roughly the same as before. Last month, the state's Public Utilities Commission began a $2 billion program that could save as much electricity as three large power plants generate.
"We'd love it if all the other states, if even two-thirds of the states, did half of what you've done in California," said Steven Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a nonprofit group that promotes efficiency.
Though related, efficiency and conservation represent two different ways to cut use. Efficiency efforts tend to focus on improving the technology around us - from lightbulbs to televisions to air conditioners to cars - so that each device draws less power or burns less fuel. Conservation simply looks for ways to use less, such as turning down a thermostat in winter or turning off computers after work.
Each has, at times, been considered a tough sell in America.
Carter's infamous sweater speech in 1979 - after the Iranian revolution drove up oil and gasoline prices - convinced many politicians that asking Americans to curb their energy appetite spelled career suicide. Conservation and efficiency were seen as weak answers to the nation's energy problems.
"They weren't macho enough for the United States," said Robert Boehm, director of the Center for Energy Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "We want the muscular answers."
They also didn't fit the agenda of any powerful Washington lobby outside the environmental movement.
"There's no constituency with a lot of money pushing it," Roberts said.
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