The big new energy report

If you had any doubts before, here is massive confirmation that the first key to solving the American energy problem is using energy efficiently. The message speaks to what individuals need to do for their own good -- and what the President and Congress need to do for the good of the country: "In general, throughout the economy it is now a better investment to save a Btu [unit of heat ] than to produce an additional one." This is one of the flat conclusions in a doorstopper of an energy study that has just been released by the National Academy of Sciences.

Yes, there obviously must be concentrated attention on providing the conventional and alternative sources of energy required for the future. But what should be accorded "the highest priority" in national energy policy? Answer: "reducing the growth of energy demand."

And we suggest that individual Americans consider whether this should not be the highest priority in their own energy policy as well. Last week's Monitor series, "New Ways to Save Energy at Home," offered specific information on conservation not as a limiting process but as a means of liberation from excess expenditure of money and resources. Last month's special section, "Energy for America," found conservation to be the nation's best short-term option and called on the federal government to give it first place in energy planning. In response to an editorial on International Energy Conservation Month (October), letters had already been pouring in from readers telling how they are saving energy and often noting how they are enjoying it.

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Stop in at a store selling insulation and other fuel-saving supplies and you will see how Americans are catching up to -- or forging ahead of -- the high-level findings and exhortations. The National Academy of Sciences report for the Department of Energy almost seems a belated ratification of the conservation emphasis in the European Community's special study, "In Favor of an Energy- Efficient Society," and the Harvard Business School's "Energy Future."

Like the previous studies, the new "Energy in Transition: 1985-2010" stresses that efficient use of energy need not cut economic growth. "Indeed," it states, "as energy prices rise, the nation will face important losses in economic growth if we do not significantly increase the economy's energy efficiency."

What are the President and Congress waiting for? It is true they have made many admirable statements about conservation. Mr. Carter was turning down thermostats way back in 1973 as Governor of Georgia. He has asked Congress for some conservation measures that have been rejected. He and Mrs. Carter have been urging conservation anew to reduce the US dependency on imported oil that complicates foreign situations such as the Iran crisis.

Yet, if conservation is to have that "highest priority" in energy policy called for by the new report, it demands more of a clarion call from the White House. It demands more insistence on conservation legislation -- more cooperation by Congress in considering the legislation and carrying it through or supplying better alternatives.

It should be noted that some of the suggestions in the report draw separate views from some of the academic and industrial voices on the committee preparing it. They do not feel that even so huge and expensive a document is the last word.

One scholar finds particular significance in the emphasis on uncertainties. One presses the point that it is gradually dwindling oil which particularly needs to be saved -- even if costs are higher for other forms of energy in its place. Another footnotes the statement that "as fluid fuels are phased out of use for electricity generation, coal and nuclear power are the only economic alternatives for large-scale application in the remainder of this century." He says that the obstacles to renewable energy alternatives may be economic and technical, but the obstacles to coal and nuclear are more environmental and sociopolitical. The latter obstacles may not be easier to overcome than the former.

Indeed, the report itself concludes that "energy policy involves very large social and political components that are much less well understood than the technical factors." Here is another point where Mr. Carter, with his social and political sensitivity, can play a genuinely presidential role in educating and leading the government and people through the difficult decisions that have to be made.

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