No. 1 energy answer: conservation

Conservation -- using energy more efficiently, not doing without -- is the United States's best energy option. But don't neglect vigorous development of new sources of supply.

That is the conclusion of a major National Academy of Sciences study that has analyzed all aspects of the energy challenge. Coming just a few months after a similar study by Profs. Robert Stobaugh and Daniel Yergin of the Harvard Business School reported essentially the same conclusion, it reinforces the point that conservation must be central to US energy strategy.

At the same time, the academy emphasizes that the energy problem is more a call to action than a demand to lower living standards. As a summary of the report puts it:

"The energy problem does not arise from an overall physical scarcity of resources. There are several plausible options for an indefinitely sustainable energy supply, potentially accessible to all the people of the world. The problem is effecting a social acceptable and smooth transition from gradually depleting resources of oil and natural gas to new technologies. . . ."

In emphasizing conservation, the academy urges realistic energy prices to encourage it. The most substantial savings, it says, will take a couple of decades as rising energy prices encourage industrial, governmental, and individual consumers to favor energy efficiency when buying equipment, developing industrial processes, or designing buildings. "Without clear ideas of the replacement cost of energy and its impact on operating costs, consumers will be unlikely to choose appropriately efficient capital goods."

Wise conservation, the academy notes, will not hurt economic growth. The study deflates the old bogey that cutting energy use will depress the gross national product (GNP). It estimates that the energy/GNP ratio could be cut in half over several decades "without significant adverse effects on economic growth," given sufficiently high energy prices. However, it warns, this possibility should not become an excuse "for forgoing simultaneous and vigorous efforts on . . . [energy] supply. . . ."

In this regard, the study -- made for the Department of Energy by the National Research Council Committee on Nuclear and Alternative Energy Systems -- gives high priority to providing new sources of fluid fuels, such as "synfuels" made from coal. It also concludes that the United States has no realistic alternative to coal and nuclear power for large- scale electricity generation. It favors a balanced mix of coal and nuclear, but would defer decision on whether to develop the breeder reactor until future electricity needs can be forecast more clearly than today.

The academy expects solar energy to meet no more than 5 percent of national energy needs by the year 2000, whereas many experts think that 20 percent is a realistic goal. The academy also sees relatively little contribution coming from geothermal energy in this century.

Some of these conclusions will be controversial. Indeed, the study cannot be fully appreciated without reading its discussions of uncertainties and the reservations of some study team members concerning many of its subsidiary conclusions. But there is unanimity as to the priority given conservation and the importance of recognizing the social nature of the energy problem. "The question," the study says, "is whether we are diligent, clever, and lucky enough to make this inevitable transition [to new energy sources] an orderly and smooth one."

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