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Speakers note government and public's reluctance to adopt energy conservation


At a symposium to discuss the role of conservation in US energy and climate policy, an advocate of reduced energy consumption put the social climate into perspective when he flatly stated that Americans aren't interested in conservation.

"We don't talk about energy conservation anymore. It reminds us of Jimmy Carter and his cardigan sweater and we don't want to think about that. Americans just won't stand for it," said David Nemtzow, president of the Alliance to Save Energy, a coalition of business, government, environmental and consumer leaders who promote the efficient use of energy worldwide. "Conservation means doing less by using less. Energy efficiency means doing more with less.

"We are using less energy because of efficiency. Energy efficiency produced 20 percent of our energy in this country today. It's our number two resource behind oil. California got out of its crisis by using less energy. The state trimmed demand by over 10 percent through a combination of conservation and efficiency," he said.

Nemtzow spoke Nov. 6 at the annual Herbert J. Hollomon Memorial Symposium sponsored by the Technology and Culture Forum (TCF). The symposium honors Hollomon, who founded MIT's Center for Policy Alternatives in 1972, a precursor to the TCF. He was the first assistant secretary of commerce for science and technology (under President John F. Kennedy) and president of the University of Oklahoma before coming to MIT. He later directed the Boston University Center for Technology and Policy.

Other speakers at "Energy and Climate: What is the Role of Conservation Policy?" were Professor of Physics Ernest Moniz, undersecretary in the US Department of Energy during the Clinton administration; and Thomas Casten, chairman and CEO of Private Power LLC, a company that develops power plants that utilize waste fuel and waste heat for energy production. Professor Henry Jacoby of the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change moderated.


Moniz placed the climate challenge in context by noting that current government projections of energy use and associated greenhouse gas emissions may require elimination of as much as half of those projected emissions, within only a few decades. Energy efficiency gains through advanced technologies are a prerequisite to meet this challenge, he said, and two good areas to look for those gains are in residential and commercial buildings--which use two-thirds of our country's electricity--and in transportation--which uses two-thirds of our oil.

Both Nemtzow and Moniz touched on the role of government policy on household appliances. "It may sound plebian, but it's very important as an example of how technology and regulation must work together," said Moniz, who explained that appropriate standards on household appliances had saved millions of tons of pollutants from being released into the atmosphere.

Nemtzow noted that consumers often don't have the opportunity to make wise efficiency choices, and when they do have a choice, often don't feel the need to choose wisely because they're not actually footing the bill.

"If you buy a home, you have no label" telling you about its energy efficiency, he said. "And 45 percent of the people who buy refrigerators aren't paying the electrical bills," so they don't really care about the efficiency rating. This is especially true when it comes to purchasing a car. "If you drive a car [that is not energy-efficient], you're not paying the price for that. Future generations will," he said.

"Why is it that the largest SUVs seem to have the largest American flags waving from them? I find it more patriotic to drive a Honda Civic and save oil," said Nemtzow, who said that fuel economy requirements have always been more lenient for light trucks (which now include minivans, pickups and SUVs), because trucks were traditionally used as work vehicles on farms and such. "Today pickups are something you pick up a video in."

During Moniz's time in Washington, a 30 percent increase in the efficiency rating of air conditioners was agreed upon, raising the required rating from SEER 10 to SEER 13. Most air-conditioner manufacturers already build a model with the higher efficiency rating, he said, so the increase was "perfectly rational. And of the 18,000 comments received on the decision, all but a few were for SEER 13," indicating that much of the industry was ready to go along with it, Moniz said. Air conditioners also drive hot weather peak demand in places like California, so the reliability of energy is helped, as is the environment.

But a rollback to SEER 12 is being pursued by the administration.

A similar struggle between environmental consequences, technology opportunities and lagging legislation is in automobile and light-truck efficiency standards. The automobile industry has produced concept vehicles that get 80 miles per gallon, an increase that would save millions of barrels of oil when used as the standard for fleet vehicles. Yet there is great resistance to even modest increases in new vehicle efficiency standards.

"A 3 mpg increase in the auto and light truck fleet is worth a million barrels of oil a day. A 10 mpg increase would have enormous implications," said Moniz. "This is a case where integration of policies is absolutely critical. I believe much of industry is quietly leading the government. Many were prepared to go along with rather strong approaches to C02 reduction in return for regulatory certainty over the next decade--because they need to market globally, where requirements are likely.

"President Bush's announcement about backing out of the Kyoto Protocol has left neither the environmental community nor industry with a clear path forward. Both the air conditioner and the auto debates are cases where greater efficiency makes economic sense, environmental sense and energy security sense. And the technology is available. Why the pressure from parts of industry against these efficiency standards? The answer is pretty much profit margin. That's why we need an integrated policy," Moniz said.

When President Bush, an oilman, came into office and wanted to develop an energy plan with Vice President Cheney, another oilman, they made an "enormous political and substantive mistake," said Nemtzow. "The proposal was very imbalanced, very supply-oriented. Bush declared there was an energy crisis, then proposed deep cuts in the energy-efficiency budget. He even rolled back the standard to increase the energy efficiency of air conditioners. That really set people off.

"Not every American is as optimistic as I am. When they saw two former oilmen making energy policy, they got worried," said Nemtzow.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 14, 2001.

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