This is not about "conservation" — i.e., living without air conditioning or making other virtuous sacrifices — but about "efficiency" — high-tech solutions, like better lighting and appliances. Amory Lovins, co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, calls it installing "negawatts." "Negawatts" are the cheapest, cleanest, most-quickly-installed — and, by the way, the most terrorist-proof — of all energy sources. As Lovins has noted, a 0.4 mile-per-gallon improvement in the average vehicle would save as much oil each year as we'd ever get from the Arctic refuge. The National Academy of Sciences concluded in July 2001 that a 40-mpg average, nearly double what we have now, is within quick reach.
Efficiency spending often pays for itself. Cool Companies (www.coolcompanies.org), set up by an efficiency advocacy group, offers such anecdotes as one about a business that invested $370,000 in improved lighting, saved $700,000 that year on its energy bill and also racked up productivity gains of nearly $14-million over the same period. Unfortunately, the market needs help — education and a regulatory shove — to fully harvest similar savings. That's because those who design and construct buildings rarely pay the light bill or the salaries of future tenants. Builders are rewarded for, and buyers are worried about, keeping initial costs low — which are easier to comparison-shop than future life-cycle costs.
An entrepreneur with a choice between wind for 3 cents and coal for 2.9 cents would buy coal. But a responsible society would crunch the numbers. Solar power and efficiency do not have secret costs that include thousands of deaths, millions of dollars in lost productivity, billions of dollars sent to the world's oil dictatorships and tens of billions spent policing the Persian Gulf. This doesn't mean we should look with loathing upon the oil and coal industries — after all, they provide heat for our homes and fuel for our cars. But it does mean we should question a government that ignores cleaner alternatives and instead shovels our tax dollars into pollution-creating furnaces.
Consider the billions of tax dollars we give to polluters each year. This largesse is sprinkled throughout our tax code in ways that thwart easy analysis. So estimates of the subsidies for fossil fuels and nuclear power yield wildly different numbers — from the U.S. Energy Information Administration's conservative estimate of $2.7-billion in 1999 to guesstimates as high as $80-billion a year. In search of less spongy data, Norman Myers and Jennifer Kent wrote Perverse Subsidies, which identified $21-billion the United States hands over every year to fossil fuels and nuclear power. "If taxpayers were aware that a good chunk of their taxes were going down the rathole into these subsidies, they'd be marching on the Mall," said Myers in an interview. "But it's hard to get the message to the taxpayer because these subsidies are so numerous and so varied, and some are so covert."
Myers and Kent also found that renewables get at best a 10th of the subsidies the dinosaurs do. They calculate that the $90-million or so the United States spends on solar research wouldn't be enough to pave two miles of Interstate highway. Meanwhile, the wind PTC costs us somewhere from 0.2 percent to 0.025 percent of what the supersubsidized polluters pull down. Critics of renewables have seized upon the wind PTC to argue that wind is not "market ready." Fair enough — but then, what is?
Apollo Projects House minority leader Richard Gephardt called in January for "an "Apollo Project' to develop environmentally smart, renewable energy solutions." Among other things, he proposed 100,000 hydrogen-fueled cars by 2010. Five days later, Gephardt gave the Democratic response to the State of the Union address and mumbled something unmemorable about energy. Democratic Senator John Kerry and independent Jim Jeffords have called for harvesting 20 percent of our energy from renewables by 2020, and Jeffords has offered an excellent bill to mandate that. But the emerging "Senate energy bill" is a much messier offering by Tom Daschle and Jeff Bingaman. Already Daschle-Bingaman has declined to demand real fuel efficiency, and had adopted a far less aggressive 10-percent-by-2020 renewables standard — even while larding in so many new subsidies for fossil fuels and nuclear power that Public Citizen derides the bill as "Enron-influenced, Exelon-tested and Exxon-approved."
So the Democrats are slouching timorously toward perhaps someday actually standing for something. Gephardt is right, of course: We could still leap to the front of this coming revolution. An Apollo Project for clean and secure energy might, for example, put a hydrogen pump next to every gasoline pump — doing for hydrogen-fueled cars what Eisenhower's Interstate highway system did for gasoline cars. Estimates of the price tag for such a project range from $20-billion to $100-billion. Or we could kick off a renewables procurements policy. The Institute for Energy and Environmental Research suggests spending $20-billion a year buying solar panels, fuel cells and fuel-efficient vehicles for federal and local government use — as a way of pushing those technologies into true mass production.