On political will and SUV wastefulness

Energy Wastefulness

The United States is not facing a looming energy crisis, as U.S. President George Bush suggests. And there’s no need to open the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve in Alaska to oil exploration, as the U.S. Congress has decreed, which will impinge on the calving area of caribou and jeopardize their future.

Instead, the United States is facing a crisis of wastefulness in the use of energy. And Canada is no better. Neither country has policies in place, as they did during the oil crisis of the mid-nineteen seventies, to conserve vast amounts of energy.

For instance, if sports utility vehicles (SUVs) were required to have the same average fuel economy as cars, the gasoline saved in the United States would represent more oil than could be pumped from the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve over the 30 years it would take to deplete its oil stocks.

During the oil crisis of the mid-seventies, the U.S. Government required car and truck manufacturers to meet fuel economy standards that averaged 27.5 miles per gallon (9.67 kilometres per litre) for all cars they produced, and 20.1 mpg (7.08 kpl) for all their light trucks. Those standards haven’t changed.

What has changed is that the popularity of light trucks has grown to the point they represent almost half the passenger vehicles produced, compared to 19 per cent in the mid-seventies. And since manufacturers persuaded Congress that SUVs should be classified as light trucks, and not as cars, it means that the gas guzzlers — SUVs, pickups, and vans — now dominate the market for gasoline.

When Congress approved oil exploration in the Arctic reserve last August, Democratic and Republican opponents, argued that SUVs should be required to meet the 9.67 kpl standard set for cars — which should not be difficult because engine technology is advancing in leaps and bounds. However, the opposition failed.

To look at the wastefulness of SUVs in another way, consider this: The amount of extra gas they use on average in one year, compared to cars, equals the amount of energy you’d waste if you left your refrigerator door open for six years.

There are other energy savings that could be achieved. For instance, $1 billion a year in electricity bills could be saved in the United States if exit signs in buildings were illuminated with LED (light emitting diode) lights that draw less than one watt of electricity, instead of standard incandescent light bulbs that draw 15 to 20 watts. I assume that proportional savings of about $100 million could also be realized this way in Canada.

If householders could be encouraged to buy the more expensive compact fluorescent light bulbs, there would be a twofold saving. The compacts would draw less electricity — 17 watts instead of 60 watts for the same level of illumination — and they would be less wasteful, operating at 15 to 20 per cent efficiency, instead of the 3 to 5 per cent efficiency of incandescent bulbs.

And finally, there’s home heating. Once again, if homeowners could be encouraged to install heat pumps there would be large energy savings. A heat pump is powered by electricity, and extracts heat from air and pumps it into a house. Even if it’s below zero outside, the air contains warmth that can be extracted, until the temperature reaches absolute zero at minus 273 º Celsius.

The beauty of heat pumps is that they deliver more energy in heat than it takes to run them. For instance, for every watt of electricity a heat pump draws, it will deliver the equivalent of two watts of heat. Some of that heat will be generated by the pump, and some will be extracted from the outside air.

So there’s no shortage of ways to curb wastefulness. There’s a shortage of political will to confront it.

And as long as political will is missing, and we in Canada are not pushing the case for more efficient use of energy in the United States and here, our natural heritage will be forever at risk — like the caribou that roam across our arctic areas and calve in the Alaska reserve.

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