Westerners slowly adapt to high prices

But what will it take to really make a change?

 

Note: this article is one of several feature stories in an issue titled "The Final Energy Frontier."

When gasoline prices hit $3 per gallon last summer in the Denver suburb of Arvada, postal carrier Jim Miller vowed to use his pickup truck less. Instead, he bought a scooter that gets 75 to 90 miles per gallon. He expects he’ll rarely use it during the winter, and never for long distances. Still, he figures he’ll easily recoup the $59 monthly payments by using it for trips to stores and the two-mile commute to work. Scooter sales have soared in Denver, where Adam Baker, co-owner of Sportique Scooters, says, "We were up probably 200 percent in September. It was our best month ever in eight years of business."

High gasoline prices also spurred interest in hybrid vehicles, which can get up to 55 miles per gallon. Now, as gasoline prices slide back toward $2 per gallon, SUV sales are rising again, but "I wouldn’t say there is a rush to buy them the way there was to hybrids and smaller cars," says Tim Jackson, president of the Colorado Automobile Dealers Association.

Rising energy prices — gas and electric prices have nearly doubled in the last four years — have also sparked new interest in renewable-energy programs. Colorado State University, for example, is buying more wind-generated electricity. It has also retrofitted the central steam plant, used for heating and hot water, to capture heat previously lost in pressure reduction. The retrofit cost $880,000, but at current prices it will save $250,000 annually.

"We tried some programs that involve behavior modification, such things as turning off lights and computers. But frankly, they are not as successful nor as efficient as making behind-the-scenes infrastructure changes," says Carol Dollard, a utility engineer at CSU. "I would have to do a lot of education and public outreach to turn off enough lights to result in $250,000 a year savings."

This highlights some of the challenges involved in getting people to think differently about how they use energy. Indeed, the main responses to rising energy prices have been small, almost imperceptible changes. Doing laundry at Johnson’s Corner, a truck stop 50 miles north of Denver, Greg McKinney, who drives a truck for Wisconsin-based Marten Transport, says he has lowered his speed slightly on some roads in deference to the wishes — and the fuel costs — of his employer. "If he’s out of a vehicle, I’m out of a job," McKinney explains, before adding, "Granted, any one effort is like a pebble of sand in the bottom of the ocean."

Nonetheless, the pebbles add up. Randy Udall, who directs a Carbondale, Colo.-based program called Community Office for Resource Efficiency, says that improved energy efficiency has been the single biggest "new" source of energy during the last 30 years. Because today’s homes are better built, for example, we can now heat 63 million houses with the same amount of natural gas we used to heat 36 million houses in 1975. "This is a function of the most prosaic sorts of things," says Udall, including more efficient furnaces, double-paned windows and insulation in walls.

Even so, Westerners waste a tremendous amount of energy, says Udall. But energy is still so cheap that inefficiency is an invisible elephant in our economy. The recent spike in energy prices is beginning to cast the problem into sharper relief — but it also shows how far we are from achieving real conservation.

Reining in energy

For serious gains in efficiency, Udall urges a focus on how electricity is generated and then used. "Forty percent of all energy used in this country is used to produce electricity, and two-thirds of it is wasted at the power plants," he reports, even though power plants have become more efficient. Coal plants now run about 38 percent efficient, while natural gas plants can be as high as 55 percent; the rest is lost mostly as heat. Once you figure in further efficiency losses during transmission and in the home, an incandescent light bulb uses only 10 percent of the original energy.

Transportation is little better. "Close to 80 percent of the energy we put into our transportation sector is not delivered at the end," Udall says. "Basically, it’s being wasted." The overall efficiency of cars and light trucks has actually dropped during the last five years.

Nationwide, sport-utility vehicle sales continue to account for nearly 53 percent of the 17 million cars and trucks being sold this year. Recently, however, consumers have begun to favor smaller SUVs, such as the Toyota Highlander and Honda CRV, says John Thomas, an industry analyst with the National Automobile Dealers Association. The change is happening slowly, however: "Crossover" SUVs now account for just 16 percent of all sales, up from 14 percent last year. Sales of hybrid vehicles should reach 200,000 cars this year, compared with 81,000 last year. While that’s still little more than 1 percent of the market, analysts project that hybrids will be 5 percent of the market by 2010.

It will take more than a handful of hybrids to get us through the coming pinch, however. Natural gas production in North America has peaked, and Udall believes world oil production is also peaking. Meanwhile, the Department of Energy projects that total energy consumption in the U.S. will be almost 36 percent higher in 20 years than it is today, even though efficiency will continue to increase.

But Udall is wary of those projections because, for one thing, they assume an ever-growing supply of oil and gas. Volatile, and rising, energy prices, he says, could lead people to "rediscover a long-lost American tradition of thrift." They could even convince Congress to put more emphasis — and resources — toward conservation.

Still, he says, "If policymakers can ignore four biblical hurricanes in two years, $3 gasoline, 2,000 dead in Iraq, General Motors in bankruptcy, (and) the warmest decade in 1,000 years, what sort of intervention will it take?"

Allen Best lives and writes in Denver, Colorado.

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