Neglecting conservation

It has been an interesting week for renewable energy with President Goerge W. Bush’s visits and comments about lithium batteries, solar electric roofing and the restoration of research funds.

In Milwaukee, Bush envisioned plug-in hybrid electric vehicles with lithium-ion batteries fueled by ethanol capable of traveling 40 miles on electricity. Johnson Controls believes its new batteries will be ready to enter the marketplace in 2010.

In Auburn Hills, Mich., he discussed the ultimate goal of having solar technologies on our homes so they become power producers that send excess electricity back to the power grid. Unisolar’s current capacity is only 25 megawatts, but is expected to double by the end of this year. By 2010, they hope to have 300 MW of production capacity.

At the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colo., he discussed NREL’s role in helping end our oil addiction by furthering the development of wind, solar energy and biomass fuels. He reversed recently imposed budget cuts that had led to a reduction of research positions at the lab.

Bush spoke of a comprehensive energy strategy that includes building terminals to accept liquefied natural gas imports, increasing use of coal, developing clean coal technologies, using nuclear power, solar and wind energy and biofuels including ethanol, soy diesel and liquid fuels made from switch grass. He emphasized the need for both public and private research to achieve breakthroughs necessary to expand the use of these energy sources.

Next to nothing was said about government actions that could have an immediate impact on our oil consumption, such as increasing federal taxes on gasoline, imposing fuel taxes on the rapidly expanding airline industry, lowering expressway speed limits to 55 miles per hour, raising fuel economy standards on trucks and cars, and ending tax breaks to small businesses for gas-guzzling vehicles whose deductions are worth nearly eight times those allowed for fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles.

In an environmental law class at the University of Michigan, our professor claimed that Congress believed the auto industry could build more fuel-efficient vehicles but would not do it unless required by law. A short time later, President Richard Nixon signed legislation that raised fuel efficiency on passenger cars from an average of 13 miles per gallon to more than 27 miles per gallon by 1985. President Carter called for actions to save energy and implemented policies to initiate a transition to renewable energy.

President Ronald Reagan’s energy policies flooded the marketplace with cheap oil effectively undermining federal efforts to use energy more efficiently or switch to renewable energy. The first President Bush tried briefly to increase taxes on oil to lessen our oil dependency. President Bill Clinton enacted a small gasoline tax increase.

Some of the proposals to increase fuel taxes are revenue neutral. Increased fuel taxes would be deducted from income taxes. A report from the Congressional Budget Office indicated an increase in gasoline taxes could produce a 10 percent reduction in fuel consumption at less cost than achieving a similar reduction from increasing the fuel efficiency of cars.

When we resist paying more taxes at the gas pump, we fool ourselves because eventually we pay higher costs for our rising national debt, increasing job losses, and dramatic increases in military spending. We may rage about what we see at the pump but ignore the hidden reality of the real costs of our excessive energy consumption.

According to a recent article in The Washington Post, saving energy in Japan is seen as a national duty and an economic opportunity for the country. Their quest to cut reliance on oil imports did not stop after 1973; imports have dropped 16 percent since then. More than 20 percent of their cars are very fuel efficient. They are world leaders in the manufacture and sale of hybrid cars. They have global dominance in the sale of a technology developed in the U.S., solar electricity.

Japan is implementing new efficiency standards in home and office air conditioners and computer printers that cut electrical consumption by more than 60 percent. As they did with hybrid cars and solar electric panels, they may soon dominate the global marketplace for energy efficient appliances. Their position results from government policies that provide consistent support for enough time for new industries to compete globally.

While the president’s newfound commitment to renewables is encouraging, funding for renewables and efficiency is dwarfed by the billions of dollars given to traditional energy sources. According to David Hamilton, director, Sierra Club Global Warming and Energy Program, federal funds for energy efficiency have declined by 32 percent since 2002. Conservation, our cheapest, most readily available source of energy, is still being neglected.

From the March 1-7, 2006, issue

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