The conservation and energy efficiency movements share the common goal of reducing energy consumption. But they go about achieving this goal in slightly different ways. Conservation focuses on reducing the need for energy, often by trying to alter the mindset and behavioral patterns of energy users. In contrast, the push for energy efficiency recognizes that, if energy must be used, its consumption should at least be as productive as possible. Both are strategies designed to save energy and minimize the damage caused to the environment.
Conservation Under Carter
The energy conservation movement, an early part of the larger environmental movement, was born in the United States in the 1970s. It emerged in response to growing political instability in the oil producing states of the Middle East and gained momentum in 1977 when President Jimmy Carter declared to the nation that the U.S. energy crisis was the “moral equivalent of war.”1
In that same year, Carter announced the creation of a new Department of Energy and proposed a series of federal conservation initiatives. These included the installation of solar panels in the White House, an audit of government energy usage by the General Services Administration, and tight controls on thermostats in many government and commercial buildings. Carter himself took to wearing a trademark cardigan sweater to symbolize his rejection of wasteful home heating.2
The public response to Carter’s calls for conservation was mixed at best. Many subsequently believe that “memories of the public’s adverse reaction to Carter’s conservation initiatives still haunt some lawmakers, who say the Carter experience proves Americans would never accept radical conservation proposals.”3
Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan, declined to adopt energy conservation as a priority, and it has never received the same degree of sustained national attention since 1977. But the idea of conservation had been raised and was picked up by many individual citizens and businesses.
A Missed Opportunity
Many feel that the past U.S. leadership did not do enough to promote conservation as a way of life. Vice President Dick Cheney, for example, has said, “Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis all by itself for a sound, comprehensive energy policy.”4 But many disagree, arguing that conservation’s role in continued American prosperity should not be dismissed:
Although often underrated, the impact of conservation on the economy has been enormous over the past several decades. Over the past 30 years, U.S. GDP has grown by 150 percent, while U.S. energy consumption has grown by only 25 percent.5
Proponents of conservation say that the government is missing a valuable opportunity,
Today’s leaders are not tapping into that patriotism by asking this generation to make sacrifices like their parents and grandparents did during World War II…Many of those flags, after all, are flying from the antennas of SUVs that only get 13 miles to the gallon.6
Conservation in the Home
U.S. Residential Energy Usage, 2009
Energy conservation can be an empowering tool for the informed global citizen because it can start in the home by cutting down on waste. A person can easily decrease the amount of energy he or she consumes at home using commonsense methods. Being reasonable with the thermostat in both winter and summer is a good first step, as is ensuring that windows, doors, and other openings to the outside are well insulated. Smart use of appliances, electronics, refrigerators, laundry machines and lights can also make a significant contribution.
Sometimes conservation requires a sizeable upfront investment, e.g. for new windows or insulation. But it is often possible to recover these costs gradually through savings in future energy bills.
The potential benefits to the environment when individual acts of conservation are added together can be huge. Some experts estimate, for example, “Buildings could be up to 30 percent more efficient within the next decade relying on technologies ‘already in the market and known to be feasible and cost-effective.”7
To read more about how you can start conserving energy at home, see Appendix F, “Energy Audits.”
Top Graph: U.S. Commercial Energy Usage, 2006: http://www.eia.doe.gov/kids/energyfacts/uses/commercial.html
Next: Energy Efficiency