New energy: climate change and sustainability shape a new era
A new energy revolution – similar to shifts from wood to coal to oil – is inevitable as climate change and oil scarcity drive a global search for sustainability in power production. But even the promise of renewable energy holds drawbacks.
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CONSERVATION HARDLY TAPPEDSkip to next paragraph
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There are plenty of ways to burn less fuel. Imagine that you're in the kitchen doing dishes one afternoon. A red light flashes, and a digital display on the wall tells you that your power usage has spiked. Your power bill currently sits at $28.98 – just six days into the month.
You might just do something about it. You might turn off the computer that's sitting idle. That's 200 watts. You might tell your kid to shut the window – there's another 50.
The fact is that person for person, Americans consume up to twice as much energy as Western Europeans; much is wasted on inefficiencies that have little impact on lifestyle.
Getting people to conserve energy will require giving them more information. That could mean placing the power meter prominently in the kitchen – not hiding it behind a poisonous oleander bush in the backyard where a stranger glances at it once a month.
That meter would tick away dollars and cents as they're spent, and sound a little alarm when peak electricity prices kick in. You might compare it to the task that we face in making another opaque market more transparent – the health-care market – so that people can see the cost of their decisions and take steps to manage them. Studies of direct feedback have produced 5 to 15 percent reductions in electricity use – and this is just the beginning.
Most of the biggest energy savings come from replacing old appliances with more efficient ones. An analysis published last November in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that low-tech actions such as weatherizing homes and installing more-efficient water heaters could reduce household carbon emissions by 20 percent within 10 years.
Those projections aren't pie in the sky, either: They account for the fact that many people ignore incentive programs. The key will be rolling out programs to make conservation easy for the average person, says Paul Stern, the behavioral scientist at the National Research Council in Washington, D.C., who co-wrote the study. "If you're going to insulate your house, you have to find contractors you trust and you have to evaluate them against each other," says Mr. Stern. "If you're going to be an informed consumer, it's not easy. A lot of people have got more pressing things in their lives."
In that sense, the greenest technology that we could devise in the foreseeable future might just be well-designed programs that take the guesswork out of home and appliance upgrades.