Although he wears Birkenstocks now and then, Carl Oates doesn't appear to be your typical eco-warrior. A member of the "Greatest Generation," he flew bombers during the Allied invasion of Europe and then was an executive with Pan Am.
But today, Mr. Oates is way out there in doing his part to fight the "energy crisis." He drives a Toyota Prius with a gas-electric hybrid engine, getting twice the mileage of the typical American car. He takes pride in the fact that when he pulls up to a stop light, his tailpipe adds nothing to pollution or global warming.
The national debate over energy policy brings renewed focus on conservation. Does it mean "freezing in the dark," huddled in a Jimmy Carter-model sweater while watching your computer monitor flicker and fade? Or does it constitute relatively painless measures that could negate the need for hundreds of new power plants?
Recent history shows that Americans - often criticized for being wasteful of energy - have made great strides. Since the first "oil shock" of 1973, the US economy has grown nearly five times faster than energy use, according to the federal Department of Energy. While gross domestic product (GDP) more than doubled over the past 20 years, energy use rose just 26 percent.
Most of this improvement has come through the use of more energy-efficient appliances, buildings, manufacturing processes, and transportation. Much of this was prompted by a stick-and-carrot government approach of new standards and incentives.
The key here, say energy experts, is understanding the distinction - psychological as well as actual - between "conservation" and "efficiency."
"There is a stark difference," says Amory Lovins, founder and research director of the Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass, Colo. "Conservation is a change in behavior based on the attitude, 'Do less to use less.' Efficiency is the application of technologies and best practices to eliminate waste based on the attitude, 'Do the same or more with less.' "
The big question now is, can the US sustain the recent trend in energy efficiency - producing more "negawatts," as Mr. Lovins calls it? It's a question that drives the political debate in Washington, particularly now that Democrats - whose rhetoric, at least, tends more toward renewable energy and conservation - have control of the Senate.
And it's an issue that apparently leaves American families conflicted. By a large margin (60 percent to 26 percent, according to a recent CBS poll), they prefer conservation over the increased energy production - coal, oil, and nuclear power plants - favored by the Bush administration.
But Americans also continue to demand bigger homes and more electronic gadgets, not to mention those ubiquitous gas-guzzling SUVs. And for all its efficiency, as Nobel physicist Burton Richter pointed out in the Los Angeles Times last week, the US still uses 1-1/2 times as much energy per dollar of economic output as Western Europe and twice as much as Japan.
"Energy conservation and efficiency improvements are not only economically sound, they also have a huge potential to reduce the United States' long-term energy needs," writes Dr. Richter.
After first seeming to downplay energy conservation and renewables, President Bush declared that "our new energy plan begins with a 21st-century focus on conservation."
Still, Mr. Bush's energy plan calls for at least 1,300 additional power plants - averaging a new one every six days - over the next 20 years. Whether those plants are built depends mostly on state and local politics, as well as public attitudes.
Meanwhile, many analysts say there are ways to reduce the number of new power plants, using existing technology and requiring only modest personal efforts.
The Alliance to Save Energy (a private research group formed after the Arab oil embargo of 1977) states that "a combination of standards, building codes, and voluntary programs in the buildings sector can avoid the need for about 580 power plants."
For example, according to the alliance, if each American household were to replace four 100-watt light bulbs with compact fluorescents, the equivalent of 30 new 300-megawatt power plants could be saved. Going ahead with the new 30 percent increase in air-conditioner efficiency standards (recently rejected by the Bush administration) would prevent the need for another 138 power plants. Investing in already-proven designs to make buildings more efficient could cancel the construction of another 100 plants.
The biggest hurdle to a new breakthrough on saving energy remains personal transportation. After marked improvement since 1975, when federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards were implemented, the popularity of light trucks, vans, and SUVs (which aren't required to meet those standards) has reversed that trend.
Bush's energy plan suggests that "the fuel economy of a typical automobile could be enhanced by 60 percent by increasing engine and transmission efficiency and reducing vehicle mass by about 15 percent." The administration is waiting for a National Academy of Sciences study on the subject before outlining specifics.
In the end, it may take millions more Americans like Carl Oates seeing the benefits of their choices. "It's not a car, it's an environmental statement," says Mr. Oates, of his gas-miserly Toyota. "I want other people to know it can be done - including Detroit."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor