Can the SUV nation conserve?

With energy prices soaring and incomes faltering, consumers try to cut back.

As America confronts its first major energy troubles in two decades, President Bush is loath to push conservation as the centerpiece of his national strategy.

But with energy prices spiking - and likely to be volatile for up to three years - a renewed conservation ethic is taking root that some experts say could defy White House expectations of how much gasoline and kilowatts Americans are willing to save.

True, Americans have always been reticent to change their lifestyle, and a decade of prosperity has reinforced the notion that "the pursuit of happiness" includes big SUVs, big houses, and tons of electronic gadgets.

Yet there's early evidence that pocketbook energy issues matter - and that a prolonged price spike might usher in the biggest conservation boom since the 1970s. "I don't even have to call it conservation. I'm just not letting the kids leave the TV on for two hours while they wander off and do something else," says Amy Jaffe, an energy expert at the James A. Baker Institute at Rice University in Houston.

Some of the changes can be seen at Betty's Home Appliance Center in Springfield, Va. Buyers looking for washing machines usually have one thing on their minds these days: stinginess.

When salesman D. Jacobs sweeps his hand across a new front-loading washer that uses half as much water and electricity as other models and proclaims, "This will save you $100 a year," he's almost sure to have a sale. "People are buying them like crazy," he says.

In the end, the amount of conservation hinges in part on two things: the price of energy and the income of families and firms buying it. With the economy sputtering, incomes - and stock portfolios - are less secure. And prices are much more volatile.

"We've had close to 20 years of declining energy prices," says James Osten, chief energy economist at DRI.WEFA in Lexington, Mass. "But now we're in a situation where supply and demand are in a tenuous balance."

He expects the uncertainties to last two to three years. That makes for price spikes - and growing conservation.

A rush of inquiries

Signs of small adjustments abound. At the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Clearinghouse - one of the government's call-in centers for energy-saving tips - manager Michael Lamb says volume has doubled, maybe tripled. "I've got more calls than I can keep up with," he says.

People want to know how much solar panels cost - or even whether they can install wind turbines on their roofs. Many calls are coming from the West Coast.

Indeed, in California, where rolling blackouts continued this week, conservation is a new watchword. Some car dealers are yanking bulbs out of the overhead lights on their lots. One Silicon Valley amusement park is curtailing the hours that its waterslides are running. Already the state has lowered electricity use 9 percent since last year.

Experts say the nation as a whole could save a similar amount without too much pain. For instance, if America's 106 million households replaced four 100-watt incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs, the country would save the energy produced by 36 average-size power plants.

A recent Energy Department report says that by increasing the efficiency of things such as washing machines, refrigerators, and workplace lighting, the nation could cut energy use by 10 percent or more by 2010.

But, especially after the golden economy of the 1990s, many people may not be ready to plunge into an era of conservation. There's great resistance to altering what President Bush's spokesman Ari Fleischer called this week America's "blessed" way of life.

In fact, the lifestyle of recent decades actually makes conservation harder. The average home size, for instance, has doubled in the past half century. That means more rooms to heat and cool. Appliances have proliferated, too.

And conservation can be expensive in other ways. "There are only 24 hours in a day, and while conservation may save you money, it can also cost you time," says Mr. Osten.

With Americans staying at work 10 percent longer than in the 1980s, energy-saving techniques like carpooling aren't likely to take off.

But there are signs of moderation, even by policymakers. "It's so important for our nation to work on conservation," Mr. Bush said in a speech Tuesday, marking a new emphasis on the topic, perhaps in response to criticism that he hadn't been saying enough about it.

Yet he cautioned, "We can't conserve our way to energy independence."

Other support

Also this week, Vice President Dick Cheney, head of the White House energy task force, showed support for the environmentally friendly process of using agricultural and human waste to produce energy - and left open the idea of boosting fuel-economy requirements for car manufacturers.

In all, "What we learned in the 1980s is that the market will correct itself - one way or another," says Ms. Jaffe at the James A. Baker Institute. If prices remain high, "people can adjust."

They'll demand more fuel-efficient cars, better building materials, and, she says, "We're not going to put up $1 million worth of Christmas lights just because we feel like it."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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