With the price of gasoline inching up (though still at historic lows), we are once again being hectored to save energy. Few aspects of our daily lives are more heavily regulated by the federal government than our use of energy. Chances are, if it runs on electricity, gasoline, natural gas, heating oil or any other energy source, it has been substantially affected by federal laws and regulations.
The energy-efficiency crusade was launched in the 1970s as part of the solution to the so-called energy crisis. Washington was convinced that world oil supplies were dwindling. Congress enacted several laws to reduce energy consumption. Some statutes set energy-use standards, such as miles per gallon for motor vehicles or kilowatt hours per year for refrigerators, and gave government agencies the authority to periodically tighten standards without Congress' approval. The energy crisis has long since faded away. The "experts" were wrong; oil supplies are plentiful. Nonetheless, the efficiency agenda lives on, fueled by the scare over alleged global warming.
But before the nation embarks on new rounds of tougher efficiency standards, it is worth examining what the first wave of such austerity measures has done for us. Despite the positive publicity; they have accomplished nothing except raise the cost and reduce the quality of products, and create or exacerbate health and safety problems.
There still are serious limitations on how much can be achieved through federally mandated efficiency measures. Twenty-five years of such measures have failed to stem the increase in national energy use. Today's refrigerators may require half the electricity of a comparable 1980 model, but people are therefore more likely to own a larger one, or even have two. Better gas mileage has led to an increase in miles traveled. A quarter century of federal energy-efficiency mandates has increased, not decreased, total energy use.
Energy efficiency, Washington-style, comes at a cost.The Department of Energy estimates the latest standard for refrigerators will add $80 to the cost of a new model when it takes effect in 2001. DOE is also considering regulations mandating certain highly efficient types of clothes washers that currently cost hundreds more than their conventional counterparts. One study estimates the total cost of appliance standards of $59 billion.
Quality also suffers. Air conditioners rated as highly efficient under the federal standard are less reliable than average models and some do a poor job dehumidifying the air.
These standards also limit the choice available to consumers. Directly and indirectly, Washington is telling us what we can and cannot have.
The efficiency crusade has also exacted a price in health and safety. The problem of indoor air pollution is in large part attributed to the government's attempts to conserve on energy used to heat and cool homes and buildings.
There are a few signs that the efficiency crusade has marched too far. Low-flow showers and toilets have been so unpopular that they have sparked a grassroots backlash. Nonetheless, the Clinton administration wants new restrictions on our choices. Such measures will be. an expensive nonsolution to an unproven problem.