HERE'S some good news about the United States energy situation - good news that amounts to a challenge. The good news is that the country has made impressive gains in energy efficiency. The challenge lies in the incentive this provides to improve energy conservation even more.
Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory (LBL), a national laboratory that the University of California at Berkeley runs for the Department of Energy, has published a 14-year study of major energy users. These include residential housing and commercial buildings, transportation, and general industry. Reporting their findings in the ``Annual Review of Energy,'' Richard Howarth and Lee Schipper of LBL and Howard Geller of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy document a 21 percent gain in more efficient energy use between 1973 and 1987.
Merely quoting the percentage, however, doesn't bring out the full significance of the saving. The analysts factored out drops in energy use due to changes in lifestyle or in the types of products produced. They are reporting energy savings due mainly to true conservation and not due just to discontinuing energy-consuming activities. They talk in terms of ``energy intensity,'' meaning the amount of energy consumed per unit of economic activity. It is this energy intensity that fell 21 percent in 14 years.
It's an impressive savings, amounting to the energy equivalent of 10 million barrels of oil a day, according to the laboratory announcement.
Savings were not uniform across all economic sectors. The biggest cuts in energy intensity were in homes (25 percent), passenger transportation (26.3 percent), manufacturing (34.6 percent), and services (38.9 percent).
Freight hauling, on the other hand, saved only 4.8 percent, in part because of the inefficiencies of small trucks doing short-distance hauling.
Schipper has also taken a look at how United States energy efficiency compares with that of other industrially advanced nations. He finds the country isn't doing too badly. ``We narrowed the gap,'' he says. In terms of home heating, he notes, ``We're actually about average.''
The bottom line of this encouraging report is that it shows what the United States can do to conserve energy when various economic sectors really work at it. This should inspire Americans to conserve even more.
Unfortunately, the Reagan administration's lack of interest in conservation and the fall in oil prices led to a slackening in energy efficiency gains in the mid-1980s. Now oil prices are again on the rise and the Middle East crisis shows the energy vulnerability of all industrial nations. This should stiffen the Bush administration's declared resolve to push energy efficiency.
While that involves many actions in many areas, the premium is on energy efficiency for automobiles. The LBL study echoes the common wisdom that ``automobile transport is the single most important energy-using activity in the US economy.''
There could be no more important energy gain for the United States than to double or triple the energy intensity rating of the automobile fleet.
This fact now is so widely documented that it seems absurd for auto makers - and auto users - to continue to resist its implications. Every time I see a bumper sticker urging energy saving I wonder how much fuel it takes to transport the message.