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To Save Energy or Not? The Unasked Question : Strategy: White House proposals represent politics-as-usual, but the analysis behind them could be the basis of meaningful debate.

February 17, 1991|Donella H. Meadows | Donella H. Meadows is an adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College

PLAINFIELD, N.H. — The new energy policy the nation has been waiting for contains nothing new.

The National Energy Strategy ignores the overwhelming consensus to promote energy efficiency. Instead, it concentrates on increasing energy supply. It calls for no new regulations, incentives or taxes. Oil, coal and nuclear companies are finding nothing in it to upset them; environmentalists hate it. White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu loves it--he should, he essentially wrote it.

But at the core of the strategy, there is a surprise, even a hope. The surprise is that the analysis behind this strategy is unusually comprehensive and fair. The hope--dim, but possible--is that this analysis could foster the most reasoned energy debate this nation has ever had, leading to a reasoned energy policy.

Every policy is shaped by two forces: background analysis and foreground politics. The political forces are loud, self-serving and, in the case of energy policy, well known. Long before the Bush White House looked at a single energy statistic, it was committed to nuclear power, to supply strategies and to drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve. Those preferences come not from analysis but from ideology and the pressures of vested interests. That's politics-as-usual.

What is not usual about the National Energy Strategy is its background analysis. The Bush Administration took as long as it did to come up with this strategy in part because it did its homework. It held 18 public hearings around the country where opinions on all sides were aired. At the same time, the Energy Department's Office of Policy Planning was assembling basic statistics.

It's one thing to gather the relevant numbers and the full spectrum of ideas about energy. It's another to make sense of that mass of information. That requires a tremendous amount of bean-counting. The beans to be counted include:

--Existing sources of energy, from nuclear plants to oil wells to hydro dams to coal mines;

--Potential sources of future energy, from wind power to cornahol to undiscovered oil;

--Existing and future demands for energy--the nation's boilers, furnaces, vehicles, appliances;

--Pollution emissions from various energy sources, plus costs of abatement,

--And conservation options for energy demand.

Only a computer can keep track of all these beans. The department's computerized energy models are not of the mythic "supermachine-will-tell-you-what-to-do" mode. They are essentially complex scratch pads to organize information. Some, for example, contain the details of the oil sector, or the transportation fleet.

In a refreshing break from the short-term focus of most government policy, the Energy Department analysis looks as far ahead as the year 2030. Any energy plan has to do that, to represent the lifetimes of current fuel reserves and capital plant, as well as the time it would take to bring on significant new technologies, whether solar or nuclear. The models also capture some important feedbacks--such as the possibility that high-mileage cars might bring down the price of gas so much that people would drive more. The models make a balanced attempt to include all energy options, on both the supply and demand sides.

But, of course, the Energy Department models are only models. They are riddled with oversimplifications. They are biased. (For example, they calculate air pollutants, but not nuclear wastes.) They are as weak as their assumptions, many of which are inherently uncertain. No model can tell us how much oil is really under Alaska, or how well cars that get 100 miles per gallon would sell.

It would be better to have access to Truth, but that we will never have. We only have models, in the computers or in our heads. The Energy Department modelers recognize these limitations. They do not claim their models can predict or pronounce, only that they can explore assumptions and test uncertainties.

For example, the models can try reasonable guesses for Alaska oil discoveries and see what difference they would make. (Not much in any case--on a 40-year time horizon, Alaska will not solve the nation's energy problems.) The models impose elementary restrictions about not creating something out of nothing, about paying for what you create and about not building things overnight. Therefore, they show that the nation cannot be run by either solar or nuclear energy within 40 years. Nor can any combination of policies free the nation from significant oil imports. Except, perhaps, the combination of alternative fuels plus strong efficiency measures--which the Energy Department hasn't tested because the White House wasn't interested.

In fact, the department analysts find no "silver bullets." Everyone's favorite scheme, from gas deregulation to methanol to car-pooling, has a role to play. None is the full answer.

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