Psst -- the energy secret!

There need be no conflict between President Reagan's emphasis on energy production and the emphasis on energy conservation in the draft of a new study commissioned by the Department of Energy. Saving fuel through efficient use is itself a low-cost form of production. It will place the United States that much farther ahead whatever the results of Mr. Reagan's valuable call to American vigor and resourcefulness for increasing US fuel supplies.

How much farther ahead? To give but one example from the DOE study, the equivalent of today's oil imports (about 5.9 million barrels a day) could be "produced" through efficient energy use in buildings now existing and to be built during the next two decades. And this goal could be achieved -- through such means as insulation and improved furnaces -- at half the cost of supplying the buildings with oil, gas, or electricity from present sources.

The overall finding is reported to be that the nation could reduce its consumption of energy by close to 25 percent by the end of the century -- while maintaining growth in productivity, attaining "full employment," and increasing the national income. We say this finding "is reported," because the study has not been published, and indeed the Reagan administration has been accused of suppressing it. The simplest way to dispel such a charge would be to release the report.

One point on which there should be no doubt is the need for leadership in establishing a national mood for energy efficiency -- or "rational use of energy ," to use the European Community's phrase in its campaign for more conservation in countries already well ahead of the United States.

Rising fuel prices have been doing their share in encouraging energy efficiency. And they ought to, when you consider such evidence as a private firm's recent finding: that the owner of a small fuel-efficient car spent less than one cent a mile more for fuel last year than the owner of a big eight-cylinder car in 1978. In other words, the savings for those who switched from inefficient to efficient cars almost offset the 94 percent increase in fuel costs since 1978.

But price is not the only factor in a realm where social, political, and governmental attitudes also play a part.

How many times do Americans need to be told before they get the idea? They new study surfaces a year after the huge energy report by the National Academy of Sciences said: "In general, throughout the economy it is now a better investment to save a Btu [unit of heat] than to produce an additional one."

The year before that came the Harvard Business School's big "Energy Future" report calling "conservation energy" the key energy source: it "may well be the cheapest, safest, most productive energy alternative readily available in large amounts," and "contrary to the conventional wisdom, conservation can stimulate innovation, employment, and economic growth."

At about the same time, the EC was bringing out its special study, "In Favor of an Energy-Efficient Society." Describing what governments could do in the way of research, standards, and development, the study went on to recognize that great individual initiative and responsibility are also demanded.

Many American companies have been showing this kind of initiative, some demonstrating that energy use could be cut far more than the 25 percent mentioned in the new DOE study without hurting their production. Individuals have been achieving various savings under the spur of prices and/or in the interests of a revived waste-not-want-not ethic. But still only some 6 percent of single-family homes are estimated to have taken near-optimum energy steps. Wasteful cars remain evident. Much remains to be done.

Now there appears to be one more powerful case being made for conservation. May the full DOE study see the light of day soon.

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