January 25, 2010

This Weekend’s News: Energy Efficiency

We often hear the argument that energy and climate policy should focus on efficiency in the near term, leaving switching to more sustainable energy sources to the future. Yesterday, a New York Times article on Idaho showed the benefits of doing just that: the utility has been paying citizens to cut their energy use, and this has until recently obviated the need to build new power plants.

Bill Gates has apparently heard a lot of that policy prescription as well, and last week he blogged this response (cross-posted to Huffington Post):

Should society spend a lot of time trying to insulate houses and telling people to turn off lights or should it spend time on accelerating innovation? If addressing climate change only requires us to get to the 2025 [emissions] goal, then efficiency would be the key thing. But you can never insulate your way to anything close to zero [emissions] no matter what advocates of resource efficiency say. You can never reduce consumerism to anything close to zero.

Gates declares that we need both, but emphasizes that there’s not enough emphasis on energy innovation. I’ve got to agree with him on this one, in part because of the U.S. experience after the 1970s oil crises. You can now find dozens of books from the late 70s and early 80s proposing energy innovation that never quite came to fruition. Energy prices dropped, incentives shifted, Reagan took Carter’s solar panels off of the White House. There was a great focus on efficiency and conservation back then as well. We set and later raised fuel economy standards, and as vehicles became more energy efficient we began driving more and more SUVs. Without significant focus on innovation now, I fear that when another energy crisis hits in 20 or 30 years, scholars will again look back at all the books from the 2000s on cleaner energy futures that never came to be and scratch their heads at how little change had occurred.

The Week Ahead

D.C. is offering up a ton of natural security fun this week. Today at 3:00 the Atlantic Council is holding an event on India-China Relations: Current Issues and Emerging Trends that may hit on agricultural trends.  Wednesday the 27th, the House Science and Technology Committee features The Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E): Assessing the Agency’s Progress and Promise in Transforming the U.S. Energy Innovation System at 10:00 in the morning; Brookings is hosting a chat on transnational threats, including climate change, at 12:30; at that same time Johns Hopkins will host an ExxonMobil official to discuss its energy outlook to 2030;  and finally, at 2:30 the Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Government Affairs has a hearing on Cutting the Federal Government’s Energy Bill: An Examination of the Sustainable Federal Government Executive Order. On Thursday, CAP has a 10:00 event on the Obama Administration’s Energy Diplomacy in Eurasia, and at noon the Middle East Institute looks at Russian-Iranian Relations in the Obama Era, including relations concerning natural gas production.