A fast, cheap step toward energy sanity

While the presidential campaign was mired in the egregious and the trivial last week, there was a hearing in Washington that addressed what should be a critical component of the nation's energy strategy. It got very little attention.

Put aside for a moment all the talk about alternative fuels. They are important and the wave of the future, but the fastest, cheapest, easiest and cleanest step toward a sane energy environment is the powerful combination of efficiency and conservation.

That was the message delivered again and again at a hearing of the Joint Economic Committee that carried the title, “Efficiency: The Hidden Secret to Solving Our Energy Crisis.”

California's good example

Two political leaders who are no longer very fashionable were on to this long ago – former Gov. Jerry Brown of California and former President Jimmy Carter, who presciently said of the energy crisis in 1977: “With the exception of preventing war, this is the greatest challenge our country will face during our lifetime.”

It may be hard to believe, but largely because of far-reaching efficiency and conservation measures imposed by Brown's administration, California is now among the lowest of all the states in the per capita consumption of energy. Take automobiles out of the picture and it would have the lowest per capita consumption of any state.

Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, noted that California's extraordinary progress in this area over the past three decades was set in motion during Brown's tenure when the state established building standards that required greater efficiency with regard to heating and cooling. Utilities were required to operate more efficiently and the state, to the extent that it legally could, required appliances sold in California to be more efficient.

A national to-do list

It's not widely understood how profound a change in overall energy consumption could be realized from a big-time, coordinated efficiency and conservation effort.

In addition to the obvious need for more fuel-efficient vehicles, we should be demanding more efficiencies from utilities, we should be requiring states to revamp their commercial and building codes; and we should be trying to weatherize homes from coast to coast, including the homes of families without enough money to make such improvements themselves.

And, of course, there are the everyday good energy deeds that would help make a world of difference: car-pooling; taking public transportation when possible; using more efficient lighting; dropping the thermostat a couple of degrees; buying more efficient appliances; unplugging appliances that aren't in use, and so on.

A leadership shortage

Combining the development of alternative fuels with a real efficiency and conservation effort is the winning hand in the global energy crisis.

People in many parts of the country are already frightened, in the heat of the summer, about next winter's heating bills. Families are worried about having to choose between mortgage payments and fuel bills, or fuel bills and medicine.

The Senate considered but was unable to pass a measure that would have substantially increased financing for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. It was a bad sign. If the government can't get that done in the current atmosphere, it hardly seems likely that it could move to an even more important step: finding a way to get the homes of these cash-strapped families weatherized so they use substantially less fuel each winter.

We know what we should be doing. What we lack is the leadership, the common sense or the will to get it done.