Com­pla­cency could side­track US goals for en­ergy ef­fi­ciency


The United States may soon be ced­ing its ti­tle as global eco­nomic leader to China, but the Western na­tion still holds the edge in gen­er­at­ing orig­i­nal, in­no­va­tive ideas. That said, an air of sat­is­fac­tion with the sta­tus quo has in­fected in­di­vid­u­als as well as or­ga­ni­za­tions in the US and threat­ens to hin­der the im­ple­men­ta­tion of some of its smart strate­gies.

Take en­ergy, for in­stance. Hold­ing most of the world’s patents in en­ergy in­no­va­tion, the US has blazed a trail in re­new­able en­ergy sys­tems, the con­struc­tion of en­er­gy­ef­fi­cient struc­tures and push­ing for more fuel-ef­fi­cient and elec­tric cars. But de­spite the proven fi­nan­cial, en­vi­ron­men­tal and com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tages of en­ergy ef­fi­ciency, get­ting both a grass­roots and a cor­po­rate buy-in for the con­cept in the US has been slow.

Dan Arvizu, di­rec­tor of the US Depart­ment of En­ergy’s Na­tional Re­new­able En­ergy Lab­o­ra­tory, at­tributes an air of “com­pla­cency” to rel­a­tively low US en­ergy prices, di­min­ish­ing the ur­gency for in­no­va­tion.

“Our prices make us com­pet­i­tive,” Arvizu told China Daily on the side­lines of the 2013 Platts Global En­ergy Out­look Fo­rum in New York last week. “But they also make us com­pla­cent.”

Even if im­ple­ment­ing en­ergy-ef­fi­cient change is in some­one’s best fi­nan­cial in­ter­est, he said, “the per­cep­tion is: ‘I’ve got to make a com­pro­mise on how I do things to take ad­van­tage of th­ese new tech­nolo­gies’”.

So, why aren’t good ideas im­ple­mented? Arvizu was asked. “First, peo­ple need to know if it’s pos­si­ble,” he replied. Thus, if peo­ple don’t know if an in­no­va­tion is ac­tu­ally im­ple­mentable, they won’t pur­sue it.

Sec­ond, he said, “they ac­tu­ally have to care”. Us­ing en­ergy ef­fi­ciency as an ex­am­ple, he said that if peo­ple think “en­ergy’s not my prob­lem, it’s a tol­er­a­ble cost”, they’re “not go­ing to spend any time” with the con­cept.

The im­pli­ca­tions of th­ese views are sig­nif­i­cant, ac­cord­ing to Arvizu. The US needs to get in­no­va­tive tech­nolo­gies into the mar­ket­place quickly to wring the max­i­mum ben­e­fit from the com­pet­i­tive edge it still holds, be­fore China ramps up its pur­suit of world en­ergy busi­ness, lur­ing in­vestors with low-cost tech­nol­ogy.

No doubt China is learn­ing from study­ing the US.

Arvizu said that a Chi­nese del­e­ga­tion that re­cently vis­ited the Re­search Sup­port Fa­cil­ity (RSF) at the US Depart­ment of En­ergy’s Na­tional Re­new­able En­ergy Lab­o­ra­tory (NREL) in Colorado came away im­pressed with the myr­iad cut­ting-edge en­er­gysav­ing ideas on dis­play. Com­pleted in 2011 at a cost of $103 mil­lion, the 33,445 sq m fa­cil­ity op­er­ates with 1,300 staff mem­bers and an en­ergy goal of 3.15 kilo Bri­tish Ther­mal Units (or 35,000 Btu) per sq m per year.

“We have a 70-watt bud­get per per­son,” Arvizu said. Whereas con­ven­tional desk­top of­fice com­put­ers alone con­sume some 300 watts of elec­tric­ity, the RSF em­ploy­ees use 15-watt mon­i­tors. And “every­body uses one cen­tral­ized printer”.

Throw in the build­ing’s rooftop pho­to­voltaic sys­tem, its elec­trochromic win­dows (that re­spond to chang­ing sun­light lev­els and heat con­di­tions) and sys­tems that ad­vise work­ers when it’s a good time to open or close win­dows), and the re­sult is a 50 per­cent re­duc­tion in the en­ergy con­sump­tion of even “the most ef­fi­cient” main­stream build­ing built to code, Arvizu said.

China, clearly com­mit­ted to em­brac­ing an ad­vanced en­ergy econ­omy — it moved over to a clean en­ergy pol­icy in its lat­est five-year plan — seems well-po­si­tioned to gain on the US. An in­creas­ingly frac­tious po­lit­i­cal de­bate on en­ergy and cli­mate is­sues in Wash­ing­ton threat­ens to cut back such pro­grams as state re­new­able en­ergy stan­dards and fed­eral tax cred­its for wind and so­lar power.

Arvizu sug­gests that the next gen­er­a­tion of Amer­i­cans will be more proac­tive when it comes to wide­spread en­er­gyin­no­va­tion adop­tion.

Through giv­ing talks at US col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties, the di­rec­tor has reached the con­clu­sion that “younger peo­ple get it” and that “my gen­er­a­tion has to die off be­fore we fi­nally get at­ten­tion on th­ese mat­ters”.

The cur­rent gen­er­a­tion could help the cause of en­ergy ef­fi­ciency and re­new­able en­ergy now, he said, by im­ple­ment­ing nu­mer­ous en­ergy strate­gies that don’t “re­quire com­pro­mise”. But the im­pli­ca­tion is that many peo­ple in the US would re­gard tak­ing even those mod­est steps as chal­leng­ing their en­trenched views of en­ergy use. And for many, that would mean tak­ing a risk.

Ap­par­ently, some risk will be nec­es­sary, if the US wants to re­tain its com­pet­i­tive edge over China. Con­tact the writer at michael­bar­ris@chi­nadai­


A com­pany dis­plays a model of an oil pump at an en­ergy trade show in Dongy­ing, Shan­dong prov­ince, in Septem­ber.

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