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The energy picture is one of those conceptual art shows we all walk into and out of every day, blurring the lines between what’s real and what’s absurd, between magic and our ability to conjure it. Whether we think energy costs are high or low, their value bears little relation to the social impact of the existence of energy itself. In this way, our favored energy products are a reflection of us. What happens when we flip a switch or turn a key in an ignition is a portal to all the mining, sifting, refining, transporting, selling, burning, spewing and dumping they/we require. Now, as the artificial cordon that separated us from these costs wears thin, the waste our actions generate, the energy lost to waste and its impact on our closed system are all knocking at the door with one fist.

We live in a tangibly wasteful society. We throw away more food in one month than many people in the world eat in a year; our power plants waste enough energy to light up Japan. Through a maze of complex signals and feedback mechanisms, we have created emblems for our liberty and freedom that tie them to lavish consumption: biggie meals, enormous cars, palatial homes situated in far flung enclaves, the list seems endless. But like the hidden costs of these signifiers, construing their limits as a damper on our happiness shows just how out-of-whack this arrangement has become.

Disincentives are the levers of motivation we use on power utilities to get them to sell us more energy than we need. We provide them simply by not expressing a preference against them. They power the vacuum in our consumer culture in more ways than one. Why are light bulbs hot? Why do video game consoles automatically stay powered-up, unless we set them not to?

Greater energy efficiency – efficiency in general – is the elbow of the conundrum in which we are presently mired. It’s the least sexy part and yet the one which would have the most force if heartily applied to the mid-section of our wasteful nature. Whoa! We didn’t know we could do that! It’s empowering when you can get a creep off your back, especially using a tool you’ve possessed all along. And in this case, the shock itself would provide a little desperately needed breathing room to take on the more difficult and seductive paths to energy sustainability like solar, wind, even hydrogen and the assortment of biofuels. Sensible adjustments to the way we generate, distribute and use energy even from dirty, nonrenewable sources would go a long way toward highlighting and reforming the waste endemic to our ways.

Of course, the way things stand, the suppliers, who generate the energy we waste, desire anything but such renewable illumination and reform. Their motives are also all about green, but the other kind. You can’t blame them (unless you recall that them = us); this is the system in which they/we operate. With shareholders to satisfy, their only incentives are for us to use more power. Why should they invest in expensive, energy-saving initiatives that adversely affect their one-dimensional bottom line?

The Department of Energy predicts a 30 percent increase in power demand by 2030. As a recent Time magazine article points out, the utilities that will supply this power are very aware that the cheapest new power plants are those that don’t have to be built. But, if we give them no other alternatives than to build new coal-fired plants, they will oblige. Do we subscribe to the myth of clean coal? Build more plants anyway? What should we do with the toxic sludge? How do we curb greenhouse gas emissions with demand on its ever-upward arc? These nasty choices have already begun to haunt the future inasmuch as we are loathe to face them.

In the perverse scheme by which utilities earn greater profits as they sell more power, supply-side investments in efficiency penalize shareholders. Efficiency measures lie dormant while demand keeps surging. Utilities and their state regulators need to become aggressive partners in the cause of efficiency, but we must make it in their financial interest to do so. Utility profits can be decoupled from sales volume. In the Pacific Northwest, utilities actually profit by saving their customers energy. It’s time to do a little more under the Gold Dome than install compact fluorescent light bulbs.

We need to untangle some of the simple assumptions about status quo energy use. The Southeast has no regional energy policy, while the New England states, the Mountain West and the Pacific Northwest forge ahead in the race to get a better deal for their citizens and their utilities. In order to steer clear of the more complex and distasteful choices down the road regarding unaffordable new power production and out of control emissions, we need to re-think the economics of our energy use. Realize that by not demanding less, we are demanding more.


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