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Posted: April 07, 2009

Is energy conservation a waste of time?

Conference on World Affairs panel plays devil's advocate

Dan Ray

“The relevant piece for me is energy efficiency, not energy conservation,” said Jennifer Nordstrom of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, who was among four panelists playing devil's advocate at the Conference on World Affairs Monday afternoon at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “Energy conservation is about values and habits. But energy efficiency is about doing more with the energy we already have.”

The CWA panel, which debated the validity of energy conservation, drew a crowd of nearly 200 community members, CU students and staff, as well as a handful of journalists at the Wolf Law Building. The discussion began with energy conservation and expanded into some of the more daunting, or frightening, challenges facing humankind today. Other panelists included Deirdre N. McCloskey, professor of economics, history, English and communication at the University of Illinois, Chicago; Bill Reinert, national technology manager at Toyota and Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif.

CWA kicked off it's 61st annual installment Monday and continues through Friday. For a week each year, distinguished panelists from around the world gather to discuss a wide variety of issues, from defense spending to intelligent design, poetry to family values, and, typically, issues outside of their area of expertise. All panel discussions are free and open to the public.

The broad issue at hand on Monday: Is a civilization that is completely powered by the wind, the sun and renewable fuels, in any way, achievable from where we are today?

Nordstrom said energy conservation, i.e. individuals shutting off the lights when they aren’t in the room or waiting to start their cars until after having fastened themselves in, may make some amount of energy available for other uses, but it is a very small amount. What it does do is create an environmentally conscious ethic in our nation.

Other panelists echoed Nordstrom’s view on individual conservation.

“It’s like trying to lose weight only by drinking NutraSweet instead of sugar,” Shostak said. “What conservation can really do is help you see how virtuous you are.”

The energy hitting the Earth right now from the sun is about 200 quadrillion watts right now, Shostak said. The biggest source of global warming is simply energy from the sun being turned into heat once it hits the ground. And a lot of this energy is in our atmosphere simply because it hit something like black pavement and was transferred into heat, he said. 

“So here’s my suggestion: We repave the world by painting all of the black roads white with black lines on them,” Shostak said. “We can save the amount of energy consumed by the U.S. by changing all of the pavement in the world to white and painting the lines black.”

McCloskey, an economist, suggested that working to mitigate or reverse global warming may not even be in our best interests right now.

“It’s not obvious that we should immediately stop global warming,” she said. “It may be optimal for the development of the world to allow coal to do its industrializing work.”

McCloskey said that there is no clear benefit today to implementing stringent carbon policies when it may, ultimately, be more beneficial to raise worldwide living standards and then make the switch to different energy resources.

Toyota technology manager Reinert said that we only have one shot to get our energy policy right. Energy efficiency and switching to renewables are important, but our best shot is right now under Obama.

“Bush Two almost took us back to the stone age,” he said. “Last year our result for energy conservation was, ‘Drill baby, drill.’ But what I’m afraid will happen is that we won’t have enough energy capacity to make up for the loss of oil in the next decade.”

Despite the fact that few of the panelists had extensive experience in energy policy, the range of perspectives reflected that of an intelligent public with many ideas about this fundamentally important issue, but with imperfect information.

“As Yogi Berra once said, ‘It’s very difficult to make predictions, especially when they’re about the future,’” Deidra said.

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Dan Ray is a graduate student at the University of Colorado School of Journalism and Mass Communication. 

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