Rippling layers of ice grew on the inside of an ancient window in our apartment as waves of Siberian cold assailed us repeatedly this winter. It was very Dr. Zhivago. Now I feel like an idiot for not replacing that window, which isn’t so much artfully distressed as rotting in its frame.
Repeated encounters with my Siberian bathroom reminded me of our building’s recent energy audit, which showed that replacing our relic would pay back in 20 years or more. That struck me even at the time as extraordinarily conservative, but I was assured by our very responsive consultant, Bright Power, that it was consistent with criteria that is used by New York state’s energy incentive program.
We’ve got about 200 of these ancients in our building. Needless to say, that payback was not urgent enough to convince my neighbors to deal with the cost and hassle of replacement. Most of the old windows have been replaced in our building because they are unsightly and fill their apartments with drafts, not just because they are efficient. These are real, value-enhancing benefits even if not captured by a standard energy audit.
The good news is that the audit revealed a number of easy, inexpensive tactics that will save the building close to 20 percent on energy costs and pay back in three years, with modest government incentives.In an apparently unrelated development, Russian premier Vladimir Putin has wielded Russia’s oil and gas wealth to annex Crimea, probably with impunity, because of Europe’s dependency on Russian energy. We could deprive Putin of his imperial ambitions by wielding the energy-efficiency weapon in Europe to lower demand.
That makes the stakes involved in my window-replacement choice considerably higher. If America was serious about saving energy, we could send a strong signal to Russia and other nations that we will use efficiency — the weapon most suited to squelching his ambitions. Instead we’ll continue to have a political pissing contest that deploys veiled bellicosity and implied threats we’re unlikely to make good on. That’s because we assume that it is politically impossible to promote energy conservation when the economy is struggling. There may be some truth to this in Europe, which generally consumes half the per capita energy of America, and pays much more dearly for it.
America, by contrast is such an energy-consumption outlier that we’ve got ample low-hanging efficiency fruit for the picking — and windows are prominent on the list. There are additional technologies and tactics that await a modest effort to mainstream. If we add it up, we can match European consumption in a very short time. That would give Europe breathing room to take its consumption down further. Our building’s 20 percent was easy, and our building was already more efficient than most of its peers.
The myth that conservation isn’t worthwhile is belied by our slowly declining energy intensity even with no energy strategy and an economy littered with misdirected subsidies. We’re bludgeoned into inaction by ubiquitous and disingenuous advertising by energy companies that promotes a paradise of low energy costs thanks to abundant fracked gas and oil sands exploited by ripping up vast Canadian forests. In the last few years, gas has been indeed cheap, so cheap that Wyoming — the 2000s gas-boom mecca — has seen production declines since 2009, and gas companies endlessly whine (not on those pretty commercials) that prices are too low to be sustainable.
Where’s the energy security?
Yet with an unusually frigid winter icing the eastern third of the country, supply shortages caused fuel costs to surge, especially afflicting the low-income households that energy companies fatuously claim cheap energy will benefit. Should anyone be surprised?
By contrast, efficiency investments put money in our hands that we can use for other purposes, a good definition of wealth creation.
Energy companies now claim we’ll achieve their endlessly promised energy security by creating a vast gas-export infrastructure to replace Russian supplies in Europe. I seriously doubt this infrastructure can be delivered in any useful time frame or at a cost acceptable to consumers. (And we’d have to sink our heads even deeper in the sand about climate change.)
It would be useful to compare the costs and time to create that infrastructure versus what it would take to achieve a similar security effect through efficiency. I’m ready to place my bet but not holding my breath that we’ll ever be presented with such a genuinely transparent choice.
We’ve got to take efficiency seriously. Otherwise we must fight hard-to-win wars, kneel supine before the oil oligarchs, and watch low-lying coastlines disappear under rising seas.