Monday, August 20, 2007

In Search of Cheney’s ‘Virtue’

Published: August 20, 2007


Dick Cheney once scoffed that energy conservation can be a “personal virtue” but is no basis for an energy policy.


Growing evidence suggests he had it exactly wrong.

Concern about greenhouse gases and reliance on imported oil usually leads to a focus on the supply side of the energy equation, particularly exotic sources such as wind, solar, waves and hydrogen. The coolest car in history is a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle I once drove on a G.M. test track: It could go 100 miles per hour and nothing came out the exhaust but water vapor.

The catch: It cost $5 million to make.

So we need to push ahead with hydrogen and renewables, but the low-hanging fruit on the energy front is curbing demand — meaning more energy conservation. And it’s appalling that our government isn’t leading us on that.

“The best source of new energy is efficiency and conservation,” notes Peter Robertson, vice chairman of Chevron. “The best source is not to use as much.”

Mr. Cheney’s image seems to be of a dour stoic shivering in a cardigan in a frigid home, squinting under a dim light bulb, showering under a tiny trickle of (barely) solar-heated water, and then bicycling to work in the rain. If that’s the alternative, then many of us might be willing to see the oceans rise, whatever happens to Florida.

But new research has shown that improvements in energy efficiency often pay for themselves, actually leaving us better off.


“This is not a sacrifice deal,” Daniel Yergin, head of Cambridge Energy Research Associates, says of conservation. “This is a technology deal. After all, we’re twice as energy efficient now as we were in the 1970s, and at the same time our economy has more than doubled.”

James Woolsey, an energy expert and former director of the C.I.A., puts it this way: “People have radically overestimated the sacrifice and dramatically underestimated the opportunity.”

McKinsey & Company, the business consulting company, suggests embracing energy-saving measures that pay for themselves with at least a 10 percent rate of return. McKinsey says that if this approach — at no cost to economic growth — were put into effect worldwide, by 2020 the annual savings would be 1.5 times the current U.S. annual energy consumption.

McKinsey Global Institute put out a 290-page book in May detailing the steps necessary. These include better insulation and high-efficiency heating in new homes; low-energy light bulbs; high-efficiency appliances; and higher fuel economy standards for vehicles. To drive a mile in the U.S. typically takes 37 percent more gas than in Europe.

“The sheer waste of it all, when other countries have shown another path, is incredible,” notes Diana Farrell of McKinsey Global Institute. “The opportunities here are tremendous.”

The best way to encourage such steps would be to impose a carbon tax, although a cap-and-trade system is a reasonable backup. But we also need mandates. An air-conditioner that is 35 percent more energy efficient than the present standard costs 260 percent more — so few people buy it. But mandate that standard, and economies of scale immediately send the price plummeting.

The government also should encourage commercialization of plug-in hybrid vehicles, which could be plugged into a power outlet to charge the battery. Such vehicles don’t use any gas on short trips and might average 100 miles per gallon.

I can’t help feeling that we in the news media are part of the reason that steps to battle climate change aren’t on top of the national agenda. We’re good at covering things that happen on any one day — like a tornado or hurricane — but weak at covering complex trends, like climate change. And we tend to cover disputes by having a dutiful quote from each side, without always explaining where the scientific consensus lies.

Climate skeptics say that we don’t know how serious climate change will be, and they’re right. But isn’t it prudent to address threats even when we’re unsure of them? We don’t expect to be caught in a fire, but we still believe in fire escapes and fire departments.

Suppose we had political leaders who snorted that fires are nothing new, that the science of firefighting is unclear, and that we can’t impose a burden on business by establishing fire departments — while brightly adding that citizens can extinguish fires on their own out of “personal virtue.”

Why, we would think those leaders were nuts.



This will be my last column for several months. I’m beginning a book leave, to work on a book with my wife, Sheryl WuDunn, about what we see as one of the great moral and practical challenges for this century — raising the status of women in the developing world. I’ll be back to column writing early in the new year.

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