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The Planet

Stopping Global Warming Starts with Increased efficiency

The Planet, July/August 1997, Volume 4, number 6

by Ned Ford
Energy Chair, Ohio Chapter

Increasing the efficiency of cars and minivans, power plants and even light bulbs will not only help curb global warming, it will help cut air pollution, protect our wilderness and coasts from drilling and stimulate economic growth.

Burning fossil fuels not only emits carbon dioxide, the primary global warming culprit, but also soot, smog and carbon monoxide. Reducing our dependence on fossil fuels cuts pollution and reduces the demand to drill in sensitive wilderness areas like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It reduces the amount of oil we transport, lessening the chances of spills. Consumers benefit because efficiency costs less than the energy it saves. Finally, it helps our economy by cutting oil imports, which account for one-third of our national trade deficit.

Nearly anything that generates or uses energy can become more efficient: industrial, street and commercial lighting and home heating and cooling. We don't need to wait for new technological breakthroughs: Huge improvements in efficiency are possible with existing technology.

The biggest individual efficiency improvement could come from increasing miles-per-gallon standards for cars and light trucks. Electricity demand could be cut by 30 to 50 percent with existing energy-saving technologies, according to experts from the U.S. Department of Energy and the utility industry. After the initial investment, of course, energy efficiency keeps saving money year after year and continues to cut pollution.

None of these improvements will happen overnight, but as they are phased in, technologies will continue to improve, costs will go down and savings will go up.

In Pennsylvania, a new boiler-control technology at one plant cut nitrogen oxide emissions by 19 percent, saving enough fuel in its first year to pay for its installation. This technology can be applied to every industrial combustion process, according to the developers.

Retrofitting commercial buildings can also yield impressive pollution reduction. A building's appetite for energy could be cut in half by installing the most cost-effective lighting, efficient motors to circulate air, tinted windows, and more efficient office equipment. These steps would also save hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of electricity each year.

One of the easiest ways for individual consumers and small businesses to save energy and money is to use compact fluorescent lights. Replacing a 60-watt incandescent bulb with a 15-watt compact fluorescent bulb that emits as much light saves over 400 pounds of coal. The compact fluorescent bulb costs about $15, but lasts 10,000 hours and pays for itself in two to six years, depending on how often the bulb is used.

Unfortunately, the energy market isn't working. Businesses often make decisions based on short-term paybacks, ignoring the long-term savings from energy efficiency investments. Buildings are seldom built by the people who will pay the energy bills, so construction cost takes precedence over long-term operating costs. Similarly, consumers aren't looking at pollution reduction and long-term savings when they buy a car. They tend to be more concerned about styling and comfort than fuel efficiency.

That's why energy activists must work to influence public policy and to educate consumers. Consumers can't buy energy-efficient appliances if stores don't stock them, but stores won't stock them if they think people will balk at higher up front costs for greater efficiency. It's up to the federal government to intervene and require a minimum level of efficiency for all consumer products from appliances to cars. Already, federal appliance standards have saved consumers billions of dollars and cut energy demand. Federal miles per gallon standards save the average consumer of a new car $3,300 over the life of the car and save 3 million barrels of oil every day. We can do even more in the decades ahead.

An enormous potential for energy and dollar savings remains to be tapped. It will pay off not just by curbing global warming emissions, but in cleaning our air and reducing threats to our wilderness and shores. For more information: Contact Ned Ford at (513) 241-8616; ned.ford@sierraclub.org.


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