Energy has been a frequent and divisive talking point during the presidential campaign, but hardly a word has been spoken about conservation. Instead President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney have competed for the title of most-likely-to-drill-and-frack.
That's a shame, because using energy more efficiently not only is the fastest, easiest and least expensive way to reduce dependence on imported supply, it also means less pollution and could add years to the supply side of the energy equation.
Perhaps the candidates fear being linked to Jimmy Carter's infamous cardigan sweater malaise speech if they push for conservation, or maybe they think Americans aren't ready to let go of the notion that more of everything – even oil consumption – is good.
While politicians dawdle, though, private enterprise continues to push ahead. Last week Dunmore-based Commonwealth Energy Group announced a partnership with a company that makes energy efficient LED lighting products. Founder and CEO Louis Evans said replacing inefficient lighting systems isn't cheap, but customers see savings immediately.
You're almost a fool not to retrofit, he said, especially with rebates offered by utility companies required to reduce their overall demand. It doesn't take a genius to see the combination of savings and rebates can quickly recover the initial expense.
After that, your savings drops right to your bottom line, Evans said, and that allows companies to maintain profitability in an economic climate that makes it tough to raise prices.
Yes, government is helping, in this case by forcing utilities that have the tools to promote efficiency, to take the lead. But you'd get no inkling this is one answer to greater energy independence, and possibly the most effective one.
I've seen the effect of conservation measures firsthand. When a newspaper I worked for in Connecticut designed a new building, state regulations – this was 1980 – required that it meet efficiency standards. We added our own twists and while we budgeted for a substantial decline in heating costs after moving from a drafty old factory, the actual bills were way below our estimates. The savings allowed us to invest in other parts of the business.
This is a long way from doling out grants and loan guarantees to startups that make electric cars or solar panels. That may have sounded like a good idea at the time, but it misses a key component – demand. All the new technologies have a cost, sometimes pretty high, and if people can't justify the outlay with savings they're not going to buy.
That approach sounds a lot like the discredited supply side economics of the Reagan years, but build it and they will come seldom works in real life. It's far better for government to do what it does best, support pure research to find better energy solutions that can be implemented by the private sector and spark demand with appropriate incentives, which can be in the form of subsidies, higher taxes to discourage undesirable behavior or simple jawboning of businesses that are reluctant to let go of their tried-and-true cash cows.
It's a shame that neither candidate dares speak any of this aloud. These may be discouraging times, but that doesn't mean we should stop looking forward – in fact, this might be just the time to focus on a brighter future rather than trying to recreate an imagined rosy past.
Ron Bartizek, Times Leader business editor, may be reached at [email protected] or 570-970-7157.