The Winning Hand (NY Times)

By Bob Herbert

Sometimes the most logical, most obvious solutions are the most difficult to see.

While the presidential campaign was mired in the egregious and the trivial last week, there was a hearing in Washington that addressed what should be a critical component of the nation's energy strategy. It got very little attention.

Put aside for a moment all the talk about alternative fuels. They are no doubt important and the wave of the future. But the fastest, cheapest, easiest and cleanest step toward a sane energy environment — a step available to all of us immediately — is the powerful combination of efficiency and conservation.

That was the message delivered again and again at a hearing of the Joint Economic Committee that carried the title, "Efficiency: The Hidden Secret to Solving Our Energy Crisis."

Two political leaders who are no longer very fashionable were on to this long ago — former Gov. Jerry Brown of California (derided as "Governor Moonbeam") and former President Jimmy Carter, who presciently said of the energy crisis in 1977: "With the exception of preventing war, this is the greatest challenge our country will face during our lifetime."

It may be hard to believe, but largely because of far-reaching efficiency and conservation measures imposed by Mr. Brown's administration, California is now among the lowest of all the states in the per capita consumption of energy. If you could take automobiles out of the picture, it would have the lowest per capita consumption of any state.

Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, noted that California's extraordinary progress in this area over the past three decades was set in motion during Mr. Brown's tenure when the state established building standards that required greater efficiency with regard to heating and cooling. Utilities were also required to operate more efficiently. And the state, to the extent that it legally could, required appliances sold in California to be more efficient.

"One of the good things that came out of the oil shock of the '70s was the dramatic push for energy conservation," said Senator Schumer. "Why don't we do more of that now?"

It's not widely understood how profound a change in overall energy consumption could be realized from a big-time, coordinated efficiency and conservation effort. We don't hear enough about this because it's not sexy. It is not something that has captured the public's imagination.

In addition to the obvious need for more fuel-efficient vehicles, we should be demanding more efficiencies from utilities across the country; we should be requiring (as Senator Schumer has been pointing out) that states revamp their commercial and building codes; and we should be trying to weatherize homes from one coast to the other, including the homes of families without enough money to make such improvements themselves.

And, of course, there are the everyday good energy deeds that would help make a world of difference: car-pooling; taking public transportation when possible; using more efficient lighting; dropping the thermostat a couple of degrees; buying more efficient appliances; unplugging appliances that aren't in use, and so on.

Dan Reicher, a former assistant secretary at the Department of Energy, told the Schumer panel that increased energy efficiency was "the real low-hanging fruit in our economy." His words echoed those of Al Gore, who described a commitment to efficiency and conservation as "the best investment we can make."

Mr. Reicher, now the director for climate change and energy initiatives at Google, said, "From cars and homes to factories and offices, we know how to cost-effectively deliver vast quantities of energy savings today."

He cited estimates suggesting that an additional global investment in "efficiency opportunities" of $170 billion annually over the next 13 years "would be sufficient to cut projected global demand by at least half."

Combining the development of alternative fuels with a real efficiency and conservation effort is the winning hand in the global energy crisis.

Because of the high price of oil, people in many parts of the country are already frightened, in the heat of summer, about their winter heating bills. Families are worried about having to choose between mortgage payments and fuel bills, or fuel bills and prescription medicine.

The Senate considered but was unable to pass a measure that would have substantially increased financing for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. It was a very bad sign. If the government can't get that done in the current atmosphere, it hardly seems likely that it could move to an even more important step: finding a way to get the homes of these cash-strapped families properly weatherized so that they use substantially less fuel over the course of each winter.

Energy efficiency and conservation. We know what we should be doing. What we don't have is the leadership, the common sense or the will to get it done.