Betsy Rosenberg used to ferry her daughter around town in a gas-swilling SUV until she got fed up one day two years ago and traded it in for a gas-sipping hybrid.
"I hate waste," says Mrs. Rosenberg, a Toyota Prius owner who now runs a San Francisco-area group called "Don't Be Fueled! Mothers for clean and safe vehicles." Her aim: to press automakers to create vehicles for the soccer mom set that won't gulp oceans of gasoline. "We're not trying to make moms feel guilty about their SUVs and we're not anti-SUV. We are pro-vehicle choice."
Rosenberg's call for energy-efficient cars echoes a rising chorus of experts who offer a dramatic solution for America's energy woes. By boosting the efficiency of cars, homes, and offices, the United States could dramatically cut its reliance on foreign oil and forgo building many new power plants. The solution would not only be easier than drilling for more energy, it would be cheaper, these experts say.
"The United States is the Saudi Arabia of energy waste," says Amory Lovins, president of Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), an energy think tank in Snowmass, Colo. "Fortunately, what this means is that we can save energy - save oil - far faster than OPEC can pump and sell oil. The last time we exercised that power and became much more efficient, it broke OPEC'S market power for a decade."
How much help does efficiency offer?
Just by "consolidating and accelerating" existing trends toward greater efficiency - at an estimated cost of $180 billion over a decade - the US could eliminate oil imports by 2040, according to an RMI report released Monday.
Even without big expenditures, the US could reduce its electricity use 24 percent by accelerating energy-efficiency programs among businesses and homeowners, according to an analysis of a dozen independent energy studies, released last month by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE).
Energy efficiency does not mean turn-down-the-thermostat conservation, these analysts say. Instead, it involves redesigning everything from cars to light bulbs so that they use less fuel to do their jobs. After the energy shocks of the 1970s, the US made dramatic strides toward this goal. But progress has been uneven since then, leaving Americans with a mixed energy-use legacy.
On the one hand, they're unrepentant energy hogs.
Except for Canada, no other large industrialized nation uses as much energy per person, according to the federal Energy Information Administration (EIA), a branch of the US Department of Energy. In 2002, that amounted to nearly 98 quadrillion Btus, the energy equivalent of 7.5 gallons of gasoline per day per person - nearly double the amount used by the average Frenchman, 10 times that of the average Chinese.
On the other hand, the US has made progress in energy "intensity" - the amount of energy consumption per dollar of economic output. Without much fanfare, the nation has doubled the amount of economic output from each barrel of oil since 1975, RMI reports, thanks in part to improved motor, computer, and manufacturing technologies.
Today's best refrigerators, for example, use a quarter of the energy they did a few decades ago, thanks in large part to vastly more efficient compressors and motors. Air conditioners are much improved, too.
Despite such gains, the volume of energy wasted continues to be enormous. As much as 5 percent of residential electricity use is for TVs, VCRs, and DVD and CD players that are turned off, but waiting in standby mode to be used - at a cost of $3 billion annually, according to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Cars and light trucks have also fared poorly of late. Their combined fuel economy, after improving rapidly from 1977 to 1985, peaked at 26.2 miles per gallon in 1987, according to Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Since then, their fuel economy has declined, reaching 25.1 m.p.g. last year.
While it is true that much of the low-hanging fruit of energy efficiency was picked in the 1970s and 1980s, continuously improving technology and rising energy costs have together created the means and incentive for a whole new crop to be picked, experts suggest.
"There's no question future energy savings can be very significant, despite what's already been accomplished," says Steven Nadel, executive director of the ACEEE and an author of the recent study.
In electricity generation and consumption, for example, more efficient lighting, motors, insulation, and other consumer programs could save the energy equivalent of about 260 large 1,000-megawatt power plants, he estimates, plus the costs of construction that would run into the hundreds of billions of dollars.
"It won't entirely stop the need for new power plants," Nadel says, "but if we pursued efficiency aggressively, we could easily save the capital costs of many new plants - not to mention the environmental costs."
If the US could improve its average fleet mileage by just 3.25 m.p.g., the saved energy would replace the equivalent of today's Persian Gulf imports, RMI estimates.
Improved efficiency could reduce not only the amount of energy consumers use but also the price they pay for it.
For example: The price of natural gas has more than doubled since 1999. But a 2 percent to 4 percent cut in demand could dramatically reduce prices by more than 20 percent, the ACEEE estimates. A smaller but significant price decrease could come from even modest cuts in oil use, analysts say.
Efficiency has worked before, these experts add. From 1977 to 1985, the nation's gross domestic product rose 27 percent while oil use fell 17 percent, Mr. Lovins points out. At the same time, net oil imports fell 42 percent and imports from the Middle East fell 87 percent. OPEC lost half of its oil market and its pricing power.
More recently, several states have also seen gains from efficiency.
Case in point: When hard-pressed California was hit by an energy crisis in 2001, the state achieved a remarkable 6 percent electricity saving - the output equivalent of more than two 1,000 megawatt power plants. Other states, including New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Vermont also saw significant savings with programs they implemented, according to the ACEEE report.
Energy efficiency, however, is the Rodney Dangerfield of energy, routinely dismissed by policymakers as a tool for meeting US energy demand. Efficiency is the word preferred by Lovins and others since "conservation" has been equated with turning down thermostats and wearing itchy sweaters to stay warm.
All this makes many politicians wary of taking a strong stand.
While pitching a new approach to energy independence early in his presidential campaign, John Kerry seems to be downplaying the issue of late, especially in swing states like auto-centric Michigan, some say. Republicans, meanwhile, mention energy-efficiency measures in the party platform, but speak little about it.
"Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy," said Vice President Dick Cheney in dismissing the idea two years ago.
But at Penn State University, energy efficiency is the order of the day. It means using high technology to live a typically technology-intensive student lifestyle without sacrificing cellphones, PDAs, CD and DVD players, computers, and printers that students have come to expect.
In 1995, for instance, the campus was one of the first to replace the two tiny light bulbs in each of 2,800 "Exit" signs on campus with light-emitting diodes. Besides saving $70,000 a year on electricity, the school no longer has to pay a janitor to replace each of those light bulbs twice a year.
The school supplies energy data on all aspects of its power plant to professors, who in turn frequently assign students to examine energy issues on campus, including energy surveys of dormitories. One result is that the many papers on the subject are funneled to the engineers, who sometimes implement their cost-saving ideas.
Last month, the school replaced all its old washers and dryers with 357 new, more efficient machines that save $110,000 in electricity costs - and 11 million gallons of water, says Paul Ruskin, a spokesman for the Office of Physical Plant at Penn State University's main campus in University Park. The school is also retrofitting classrooms with sensors that detect the carbon dioxide students breathe out - which in turn adjusts ventilation systems to the needed level. "We've seen a definite increase in interest among students in saving energy," he says.
To Lovins, the key is weaning a nation from its dependence on oil imports with a new generation of ultralight automobiles made from ultrastrong carbon fiber. Powered by hybrid and eventually fuel-cell technology, such vehicles would vault the US ahead of other nations technologically and help it "win the oil endgame," he says.
"Some day our cars will be made of carbon fiber materials that weigh half as much and are twice as strong," Lovins adds. "We'll fly on airplanes that have better engines, but are lighter and more aero-dynamic. Cars and planes will still look the same, but the greater efficiency and lower fuel costs will pay for themselves."
This would be great news to Rosenberg - but she's not willing to wait for carbon fiber cars - she and her friends want more hybrid choice today.
In the meantime, her group is calling for a "mom-cott" of monster SUVs.
"We want a hybrid in every driveway next year," she says. "We want to accelerate the pace of this transition technology, here, today. We don't want to have to wait decades."
One way to measure a nation's efficiency is its energy "intensity" - how much fuel it takes to produce $1 of goods and services. Nations have generally improved their efficiency from 1980 to 2002, but progress varies:
• The US saw dramatic progress, reducing its energy intensity 35 percent.
• China experienced the largest drop among large nations - down 66 percent - mostly because of its mushrooming economic growth.
• Saudi Arabia has gone the other direction, with energy intensity rising 130 percent.
Source: Energy Information Administration