By Donella Meadows
–May 30, 1991–
Dozens of energy bills are before Congress just now, most of them astonishingly dumb. In spite of vivid demonstrations from the Persian Gulf and from the environment that we need to re-think our energy policy, Congress and the President are still pleasing vested interests and playing short-term politics, rather than designing a sustainable energy future.
George Bush, the Oil Company President, promises to veto any energy measure that does NOT permit drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Some people in Congress say they will permit that drilling only if there is also a requirement that Detroit make cars averaging 37 (recently shaved down from 40) miles per gallon.
Never mind that a 40 mpg requirement would save so much oil that there would be no need to trash the Wildlife Refuge. There are enough Car Company Congressmen to kill the idea of 40 or even 37 mpg. The car and oil lobbies will probably cancel each other out, blocking any new policy.
Meanwhile the government itself continues to be a major energy hog. According to the Alliance to Save Energy, it could save $864 million a year by using existing energy-saving technologies — $174 million by meeting the appliance efficiency standards it imposed on the rest of us in 1985.
Energy policy doesn’t have to be like this. Outside the Beltway there are plenty of good energy ideas. They are based on three simple facts, known to anyone who hasn’t sold out to a car, oil, or nuclear company:
- Greater efficiency is the most inexpensive and job-generating source of energy available today.
- As soon as possible, we have to get away from coal, oil, and gas and onto renewable sources like sun and wind — both to cut pollution and to outwit depletion.
- The market isn’t carrying us toward efficiency and renewables, because government and corporations are shoving hard the other way. If government would stop rigging the energy market and actively correct market failures, energy would go a long way toward taking care of itself.
For instance: Information about efficiency is inadequate. People simply don’t know about the new technologies — efficient light bulbs, motors, windows, appliances — that can do the same jobs with less energy. We get most of our information from advertising, which is bought by people who have a stake in encouraging us to waste energy, not save it.
The government could correct that problem in many ways. It could fund alternative information sources (lively ones, not boring government documents). It could require large-letter energy-use labeling on appliances and vehicles. It could be a demonstration site itself. The Department of Energy could operate a loan fund for other federal agencies to buy insulation and efficient light bulbs and the like. They could pay back the loans quickly from the savings in their energy bills — after which they could use the savings to expand their budgets without raising taxes.
The government could remove its excessive subsidies to nuclear and fossil sources, or at least provide equal ones to efficiency and renewables.
A good idea that’s catching on outside the Beltway is feebates. Set a target car mileage of, say, 40 mpg. Charge anyone who buys a new car a stiff fee, say $200 for every mpg under 40. Reward anyone who buys a car that gets more than 40 with $200 per mpg. A feebate program would fund itself, would give the car owner the upfront signal that gas guzzlers are costly, and would bring off the shelf the 60-80 mpg cars that the manufacturers have been testing for years.
Feebates could work for new buildings too — the builder pays a fee or gets a rebate when the building is hooked to the grid, depending on its electricity use per square foot.
There could be rebates when appliances or cars are scrapped for more efficient new ones. A death certificate from a recycler could be cashed in. That would ease the problems of junk cars and solid waste and would save further energy by recycling materials. It would help low-income people, who tend to inherit used gas guzzlers and pay the high price of running them, to buy more efficient vehicles.
The biggest market failure, any economist will tell you, is that pollution is a real cost that isn’t reflected in prices. The way to correct that is with pollution taxes — a charge on every fuel for each ton of carbon, sulfur, or nitrogen oxide it will emit. Several European countries are experimenting with these taxes. They will raise revenues for the government, but that isn’t their main purpose. Their main purpose is to make prices tell the truth, which will provide incentive for technical shifts to the less expensive options — efficiency and renewables.
None of these ideas is likely to be adopted inside the Beltway this year. But states, towns, and entrepreneurs are putting them into action. Several states are working on auto feebate systems; California may be the first to have one. Engineering firms are making a good business in helping companies save energy and splitting the profits from the saving. States are freeing up utility laws so electric companies can sell efficiency and share savings with customers.
To make a decent energy policy we don’t really need the federal government. But the process would be faster and smoother, if the government were an Environment Government, a Consumer’s Government, a Least-Cost Government, a government that cared about the nation’s energy future.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1991