Alternative Energy (just save it in the first place)

Foreign Policy had a really nice article recently on "The Seven Myths About Alternative Energy."   Not all that surprising upshot: alternative energy is far from a panacea.  Sure, it can do some, but we need to be smart about it and do realistic costs/benefit assessments.  Point five, "there is no silver bullet," is really important, and should really be labeled, "it's efficiency, stupid."  Far and away the best, most cost-effective way to address our long-term energy issues is to use the energy we have now much more efficiently.  The truth is, it isn't even that hard.  This is low-hanging fruit that we are largely just leaving sitting there.  Of course, that's one reasons something like cap and trade, which changes the incentive structure in energy use would really help.  From the article:

And one renewable energy resource is the cleanest, cheapest, and most
abundant of them all. It doesn't induce deforestation or require
elaborate security. It doesn't depend on the weather. And it won't take
years to build or bring to market; it's already universally available.

Efficiency isn't sexy, and the idea that we could use less energy
without much trouble hangs uneasily with today's more-is-better
culture. But the best way to ensure new power plants don't bankrupt us,
empower petrodictators, or imperil the planet is not to build them in
the first place. "Negawatts" saved by efficiency initiatives generally
cost 1 to 5 cents per kilowatt-hour versus projections ranging from 12
to 30 cents per kilowatt-hour from new nukes. That's because Americans
in particular and human beings in general waste amazing amounts of
energy. U.S. electricity plants fritter away enough to power Japan, and
American water heaters, industrial motors, and buildings are as
ridiculously inefficient as American cars. Only 4 percent of the energy
used to power a typical incandescent bulb produces light; the rest is
[emphasis mine] …

biggest obstacles to efficiency are the perverse incentives that face
most utilities; they make more money when they sell more power and have
to build new generating plants. But in California and the Pacific
Northwest, utility profits have been decoupled from electricity sales,
so utilities can help customers save energy without harming
shareholders. As a result, in that part of the country, per capita
power use has been flat for three decades — while skyrocketing 50
percent in the rest of the United States. If utilities around the world
could make money by helping their customers use less power, the U.S.
Department of Energy wouldn't be releasing such scary numbers.

So, sure, put in that CFL lightbulb, but if we really want to change, we need to change policies so that you have a truly strong incentive (other than my suggestion, of course), to put in some CFL light bulbs (and other actions, too, of course).  And while I'm at it, let me know if you are aware of any CFL light bulbs that will work in ceiling fans.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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