Thursday, June 12, 2008

A New Logic of Efficiency

Now that Americans are living with $4 gasoline, many things are coming into a sharp new focus. While for some, this means blaming a conspiracy against drilling more U.S. oil, or squeezing more oil from rocks, most—hopefully—dig deeper. Reasonable people are accepting that stored energy is limited, carbon-based fuels will destroy our grandchildren’s Earth, and oil and gas are precious gifts from the past... too important to send up in smoke. The effects on our economy are starting to appear, as billions of dollars that once floated us in prosperity are now sent to other countries. Only time will tell how deep the cracks will go before we shore up the structure.

A schoolgirl recently asked Barack Obama what he would do to immediately reduce gas prices. As a political candidate in our short-attention-span, sound-bite media crucible (media-crity?), we've put him in no position to tell this truth: genuine solutions to the fossil fuel situation can come only from long-term and mass-market change. Yes, we desperately need leadership to steer the ship in a new direction, but the right actions are completely unrelated to immediate relief.

Aside from inspiring people to change their ways—which great leaders will do— government only has two direct tools: taxation and legislation. Attempting reduce the price of gas with any fiscal chicanery is doomed to backfire. We will just burn more and make the problem worse. We can argue about the merits of laws such as vehicle mileage requirements, but there is no likelihood that legislation offers immediate relief.

While there is no short-term fix, there is plenty we can do immediately to start paying less for energy. In a peculiar twist of fate, America’s saving grace is that we waste so much energy in this country, we can simply start harvesting that waste. It's time to concentrate our political will on a new logic, one of efficiency.

Consider just some examples from my own day. I drive to work, 13 miles that I could attempt to bike if there were any space in which to do it. I wait at one particular traffic light where cars line up 1/4 mile on one side of the intersection while there is zero cross traffic... because there is no electronic sensor yet.

The office in which I work probably consumes three times the energy it needs. There are so many unused lights on that you would swear energy was actually free to this very day. There are public lights no on knows how to turn off; there are personal lights no one chooses to turn off; there are mysterious lights no one can turn off. There is no public stairway, despite its being only three floors so everyone uses an elevator unnecessarily. As with most American office buildings, there is no way to use cool or warm outside air when it would help.

I drive to the gym at lunch because there are no sidewalks in my office park on which to walk, even to the shopping center three blocks away for lunch. At the gym there are at thousands of watts of lights on immediately beside floor-to-ceiling windows... next to a 25-foot whirlpool that remains on every minute, all day no matter how empty. In the locker room, when I turn on the wall-mounted fan to dry off, it always pumps out heat even when I don't need it in the summer. And the 2000-watt unit stays on irrespective of how long I'm in front of it.

The examples go on endlessly for all of us, all day. I estimate that we might be using five times the energy we need in America. Some use the term conservation, as if we're trying to keep something, but that doesn't sound quite right to me. There’s no saving energy… just using it smarter. And I’m all for alternative energy by any means. But the closest thing we have to an instant solution is right in front of us.

If we would just convert our unbelievable waste into money, we will dramatically reduce the demand for energy which in turn will drive down prices as quickly as any other measure... immediately. If we start converting our old-fashioned devices with timers and sensors… building sidewalks, stairs, and bike lanes, and opening windows. It must start with a new mindset in which all Americans understand energy efficiency, and inefficiency when it is burning all around them.

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