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Society needs overhaul to generate fuel efficiency, experts say


February 22, 2005

WASHINGTON – Drastically increasing energy efficiency during this century will be sobering work.

It won't merely require driving cars with better gas mileage, turning down the thermostat or replacing electricity-sapping light bulbs – although those measures will help.

It will require retooling societies by changing the way companies build things, maximizing energy conservation in homes and instituting many other changes, scientists and policy experts said yesterday at a session in Washington, D.C. The speakers gathered on the last day of the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Driving the studies of fuel efficiency is the specter of rising global temperatures caused by increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, panelists said. Chief among those gases is carbon dioxide, a primary pollutant from the burning of fossil fuels.

Skyrocketing fuel prices, the world's projected shortage of oil and developing countries' greater need for crude oil are other motivations for improving fuel efficiency, the speakers said.

"The most demanding is the climate change challenge, the challenge of figuring out how to deliver the energy . . . civilization requires while avoiding an intolerable and unmanageable disruption of the global climate," said John P. Holdren, an environmental policy professor at Harvard University and president-elect of the association.

Boosting energy efficiency doesn't have to cripple the economy, several speakers said.

In California, many laws governing energy efficiency are designed so that any compliance costs can be recovered through energy savings after five years, said Arthur Rosenfeld, a member of the California Energy Commission. The state is widely recognized as a national leader in regulating emissions of greenhouse gases.

Globally, a look at the numbers reveals how daunting it will be to balance energy usage with environmental preservation.

To keep concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide below 550 parts per million – still double the level from before the Industrial Revolution, which began in the mid-1700s – the amount of energy derived from fossil fuels worldwide in 2100 must remain the same as it was in 2000, Holdren said.

Energy harvested from nuclear power, wind, water, the sun and other sources that don't require burning carbon would have to increase 15-fold, he added.

"The global energy problem is bigger than most people think," Holdren said.

Identifying energy waste is a key step toward elevating fuel efficiency.

For example, vehicles that idle at traffic lights and elsewhere waste enough fuel each year to run the nation's airlines for the same period, said David Bassett, an energy consultant formerly with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy.

A typical automobile in America loses about 90 percent of its potential energy from fuel, he said. The culprits are engine heat loss and friction, inefficient transmissions and braking systems, improperly inflated tires, and use of air conditioning and other accessories.

The fuel record for a research vehicle is 10,000 miles per gallon, said John Laitner, a senior economist at the EPA's Office of Atmospheric Programs. While the vehicle is not practical for people to drive, its revolutionary fuel efficiency shows how important it is for people to think more boldly, he said.

"We have a (limited) understanding of what it means to be energy-efficient, and that tends to bind our thinking and prevent new opportunities and new technologies," Laitner said.

Advancements in energy efficiency also will require visionary government leadership and strong regulations, other speakers said.

Kathryn Clay, a staff member on the House Science Committee in Congress, said her past work for the electric car division at Ford Motor Co. confirms such a perspective.

"Even within the division, it was not a real belief that this was a technology that the company was going to commit to," she said.

New technologies hold great potential, said Marilyn Brown, a researcher at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

Researchers are exploring nanotechnology – an emerging science that engineers materials on the tiniest, atomic scales – to find ways to improve fuel efficiency.

Nanotechnology could someday lead to super-light yet strong automobiles, plus more-efficient ways for industry to manufacture products, Brown said.

In other areas, future materials for roofing would adjust to the environment, reflecting sunlight on hot days and absorbing heat on cool ones.

And high-temperature superconductors would significantly increase the capacity of transmission cables, thus limiting the energy lost en route from power plants to homes and businesses, Brown said.

Bruce Lieberman: (619) 293-2836;

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Updated: 2016/06/30

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