Using energy wisely will help fill your pocketbook, protect the environment, and perhaps improve national security -- this according to a new report on energy efficiency issued by the American Physical Society (APS), the leading organization of physicists in the United States. The report, which looks at improving energy efficiency in the transportation sector and in buildings, makes several specific policy recommendations, such as achieving independence from fossil fuels in new buildings by 2030; reaching an average standard mileage of 35 mpg for cars and light trucks by 2020 and 50 mpg by 2030; lowering per capita energy consumption across the nation; and increasing the amount of money spent on federal energy research to match 1980 levels.
The chairman of the committee that prepared the report, Burton Richter, a scientist at Stanford and winner of the Nobel Prize in physics, says that we are now in a time of energy instability. But unlike previous energy crises, such as the one that hit the U.S. in 1979, our present energy problems are likely to be more long lasting. American reliance on imported oil is much higher than three decades ago, more countries with burgeoning economies---especially China and India---compete for energy supplies, and we are now cognizant of a problem practically unknown in 1979, namely the threat to climate posed by massive carbon dioxide emissions.
In some ways, things are better then 30 years ago. The United States has, through great improvements in productivity, been able to halve the amount of energy needed for producing a unit of gross domestic product (GDP). That's the good news. The bad news is that the United States still uses more energy per capita than any country except Canada. Rapidly rising fuel costs, massive oil imports from volatile places around the globe, and concerns that the continued reliance on fossil fuels is altering our climate all underscore the need to improve efficiency.
Energy efficiency is the amount of energy put into a device, whether a light bulb or a vehicle, that actually results in a desired end use, such as the production of light or motion. Generating electricity at a power plant, for example, is typically only about 33 percent efficient. Only about one third of the energy in a pound of coal results in electricity; the rest is wasted as heat.
In its examination of energy use in the building sector, the APS efficiency study asserts that by the year 2020 it will be feasible to economically construct residential buildings that require no fossil-fuel inputs, except in very hot and humid climates. Such "zero-energy buildings" (or ZEB) could come about largely with existing technology through a huge decrease in the amount of energy needed to warm and light the building and through an enhanced use of renewable energy sources, such as rooftop solar cells. Many energy experts have embraced this aim, and even the U.S. Department of Energy has declared that ZEB construction should be the goal for new federal buildings.
Weaning commercial buildings from intensive energy use is more difficult than is the case with residential buildings because of differences in size, shape and the demands that are placed on warming, cooling, and lighting systems. But even with commercial buildings, the APS report argues, the zeroing out of fossil-fuel-energy for new construction should be attainable by the year 2030. To achieve this goal, however, will require much more energy research. The report points out that the enhanced funding need only match federal energy research levels in place in 1980. Research around that time led to a major improvement in efficiency standards. For instance, compact fluorescent lights and refrigerators now use about one-fourth the energy needed for comparable models of 30 years ago. Air conditioners are twice as efficient as those in 1980. Such dramatic improvements in energy use could be sustained, many experts argue, but only if a concerted energy research program is put in place. The improvements should pay for themselves in lower fuel bills.
Can efficiency continue to improve? Haven't we already wrung out all the efficiency we can? Well, Europe uses roughly half the per-capita amount of electricity as America, for the same quality of life. Can lower energy consumption come about in the United States? It already has. Per-capita energy use in California, about half the national average, has stayed flat for the past 30 years, largely through an ambitious program of appliance standards and other innovations in building design. On the transportation front, the APS report calls for better mileage standards for cars and light trucks: a fleet average of 35 mpg by the year 2020 and 50 mpg by the year 2030. The report states that the 2020 goals are feasible largely with existing design knowledge, but that the 2030 goals will require additional coordinated research efforts. Especially in the area of batteries, which would have to be much more economical in terms of price and the amount of storable energy, research levels and commercialization incentives need to be enlarged.
The APS energy report also makes clear that while pressing forward with research on specific energy components, such as batteries, appliances, or automobiles,it is important also to properly fund basic research ---, the kind of work that results in fundamental new understanding of novel materials and energy conversion processes --- and long term applied research which often finds no home in either the commercial or federal R&D portfolio. A copy of the report can be obtained at this website: www.aps.org/energyefficiencyreport Phillip Schewe