In the past few days a number of initiatives have come out of the White House that suggest the Obama administration sees conservation as a major component of its energy policy. Stephen Chu, the new Energy Secretary, has long advocated efficiency [opens YouTube link] as the quickest, cheapest untapped resource. More recently President Obama, through words and actions, has lent his vote of support to these efforts. In a speech to staff at the Department of Energy Obama emphasized rising efficiency as one tool in our battle to “end the tyranny of oil in our time.”
So where does this battle begin? With a presidential memorandum calling for the DoE to “set new efficiency standards for common household appliances… [to] conserve tremendous amounts of energy. “ The aim is to “save through these simple steps over the next 30 years the amount of energy produced over a two-year period by all the coal-fired power plants in America.”
If the Japanese experience is anything to go by, the President is understating the impact a concerted conservation drive can have on energy consumption. As Devin Stewart and I write in “How Japan Became an Efficiency Superpower: Lessons for U.S. Energy Policy under Obama,” Japan has successfully decoupled its economic growth from energy consumption, achieving efficiencies unmatched anywhere in the world.
A measure of skepticism at this point could be warranted. After all, Japan has become what Devin Stewart calls an “Efficiency Superpower” not over night, but over the course of 30 years of consistent policies. Yet that same institutional momentum that has allowed Tokyo to get to where it is today in terms of energy policy seems to be now building in Washington.
Aside from the high-profile appointments of Dr. Chu to the DoE or Carol Browner as White House Energy and Climate Change advisor, appointments to other government agencies show concern with climate change and energy conservation will be high on the agenda. The administration’s selection of Ron Sims, a former Executive of King County, Washington, as deputy secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development is a case in point. In his former role Sims advocated for the expansion of public transportation, protection of green space, and increased biofuel use. His appointment complements White House’s pick of Shaun Donovan, a champion of energy-efficient affordable housing at New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, as HUD Secretary.
With more and more policies on energy and the environment coming out of the Administration, it may be just a matter of time before other tried-and-tested ideas from our allies abroad are translated into U.S. policy. Germany, for example, has been successful at promoting electricity production with wind and solar by in effect raising the cost of energy high enough to make renewables competitive with conventional (fossil-fuel fed) generation.
Both in the EU and East Asia cars have become much more efficient over the past 30 years mainly not due to government mandates (though these also play a role), but to higher petrol taxes. The return of low oil prices, expected to last another two or even three years, may cause the old standby – imported oil – and the age of the SUV to be upon us once again. Should lessons from our friends in Europe and Japan fail to reach the halls of Washington then, as Evan O’Neil writes, “Obama Could Miss the Bus on Raising Gas Tax” – and therefore miss a great opportunity to dampen oil consumption and make the American economy energy-competitive again.
For the time being, what has become abundantly clear is that science has regained its rightful place in government decision-making. The stimulus bill, in its current iteration, contains a smorgasbord of energy initiatives targeted at renewables, conservation, and research. Let us only hope that, in President Obama’s words, Capitol Hill understands that “inaction is not an option that is acceptable … -- not on energy, not on the economy, not at this critical moment.” The United States, and the world, cannot afford another 30 years of rudderless drift.
Photo Credit: Energy Conservation is Executing by owen-jp