Washington — After years marked by predictions of doom and gloom, says a leading energy expert, "all the economic forces [now] are pushing us toward an energy solution."
The 1980s, Roger W. Sant says, could become the "decade of energy opportunity , not another decade of crisis."
By the end of the '80s, he adds, "imports of foreign oil ought to be at very manageable levels."
Pie in the sky? Not so, according to Mr. Sant, director of the Energy Productivity Center of the Mellon Institute in Arlington, Va.
He shifts the focus of attention from the cost of fuel itself -- oil, coal, gas, electricity -- to the cost of the systems needed to make those fuels useful.
Improved delivery of energy to consumers -- industrial, commercial, and residential -- could, according to a Mellon Institute study, yield striking results:
* The cost per person of energy services might be reduced by as much as 17 percent, or $800 a family, simply by using "currently available products and technologies that improve energy efficiency."
* This in turn would reduce consumption of fuel, including foreign oil.
* Pollution caused by fossil fuels would decrease and public utilities should need to build fewer power plants, including nuclear.
* Vast new markets would be opened to US companies willing to package and sell complete energy systems, including fuel.
Already, Mr. Sant says, Honeywell Inc. is testing the concept of a "complete service contract" which would offer owners of commercial buildings an "agreed-on level of heating, cooling, lighting, and business machine use" for less money than owners now pay to utilities.
The purpose of the program, a Honeywell official says, "is to help a building owner save money on energy conservation possibilities" without having to make all the complex decisions.
"Honeywell," he says, "would audit a building, identify conservation possibilities, install the equipment, and monitor its operation."
Energy costs, the official says, might be cut by 40 percent, with these savings shared by the owner of the building and by Honeywell.
So far, says Rick Cathcart, also of Honeywell, "all this is very much in an infant, or exploratory, stage," with no contracts signed.
But, he stresses, the necessary technology exists. Barriers are institutional, not technical.
Mr. Cathcart, who directs the department of energy resources and conservation within Honeywell's Technology Strategy Center, says: "We are convinced that conservation [of this type] could maintain the American standard of living" while reducing consumption of fuel.
Translated into family terms, an energy services company -- in some cases a utility, in other cases not -- would up- grade the energy efficiency of a home and charge the family a monthly price "for the complete service," Mr. Sant says. This would include "the cost of fuel, a monthly charge for equipment, and, perhaps, a management fee."
Already Americans have achieved considerable energy conservation, with overall consumption of oil down about 8 percent from a year ago. Imports of foreign oil are shrinking.
Much of this savings, however, is based on price conservation -- that is, impelling Americans to burn less gasoline and oil by raising the cost of those fuels.
Prime booster of prices is the 13-member Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. But President Carter, by progressively decontrolling the price of domestic oil and imposing a $4.62 a barrel fee on imported oil, is adding his bit.
If all goes as planned, domestic oil prices will reach the world level by Sept. 30, 1980.
Price conservation, which reduces consumption of fuel, implies a lower standard of living. By contrast, says Mr. Sant, improving the delivery of energy services could satisfy demand rather than reduce it.