Energy: the first priority

It would be tragic if Americans missed the point of the National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council comprehensive energy study. That study gives highest priority to conservation - not doing without, but using energy more efficiently. Close behind this, it gives second priority to vigorous development of new energy sources, especially fluid fuels to replace those derived from gas and oil.

Yet some news reports of the study have emphasized increased reliance on coal and nuclear power. This is badly misleading.

The NRC study did indeed conclude that the United States needs a "balanced mix" of coal-fired and nuclear-powered facilities for generating large blocks of electricity. But this conclusion is hedged in uncertainties, including inability to forecast accurately the growth in electricity demand.

The study's discussion of this is decidely secondary to its strong emphasis on conservation, which is seen as a long-term strategy for transforming national energy use. Short-term measures - driving less, insulating houses, retrofitting industrial plants to operate more efficiently - can bring substantial savings. But the big payoff the study envisions would come over the next two decades as - and if - a determined effort is made to design new energy-efficient industrial processes, replace existing capital goods (including your car or refrigerator) with more efficient models, design new buildings to use minimum energy, and so forth. The study urges letting energy prices find their true market value to encourage this.

Seen in this perspective, conservation is the prime energy option the United States now has. It is more than time that the country faced up to this fact.

The academy study is not the only one to reach this conclusion. A similar analysis carried out at the Harvard Business School by Profs. Robert Stobaugh and Daniel Yergin makes the same point. So does a more limited study by the Center for Defense Information, which looked at US military needs for oil.

Pointing out that "no threat to the US exists that could provide the justification for going to war for oil," CDI concludes that "conservation is the most important role for the US military in easing the current oil crisis." Yet, it notes, the Pentagon seems to have little success in conserving, leaving the burden of providing for its energy needs to the public and Congress. This echoes a similar criticism by the General Accounting Office, which gives the federal government as a whole poor marks for energy conservation.

Thus the national security, both in military and economic terms, dictates an energy policy whose keystone is efficiency. The Carter administration should acknowledge this, put its own energy house in order, and reshape its energy policy to emphasize conservation. But can it do it in an election year?

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