Efficiency, Reduced Consumption Should Be Focus

Not everyone is sold on alternative fuels as the solution to energy problems. Time magazine senior correspondent Michael Grunwald is a skeptic when it comes to renewable fuels. He tells Steve Inskeep instead of emphasizing alternative energy sources, the U.S. should focus on boosting efficiency and reducing consumption.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Energy sprawl is one of the reasons that Time Magazine senior correspondent Michael Grunwald is dubious of biofuels.

Mr. MICHAEL GRUNWALD (Correspondent, Time Magazine): It originally sounded like a terrific idea. Renewable fuels is one of those phrases that's become like the troops or apple pie. How can you be against it?

INSKEEP: Grunwald has written an article in Foreign Policy Magazine entitled "Seven Myths about Alternative Energy." Biofuels dump less carbon into the air, but if your biofuel was grown on a farm and somebody burned down a forest to make room for the field, he says that cancels much of the benefit. Grunwald is skeptical about another alternative fuel: nuclear energy.

Mr. GRUNWALD: The sort of old line on nuclear power was that it's expensive to build, but, you know, it's really cheap to operate. So it - overall, it's kind of a good way provide power without emissions. The problem is, is it's turning out to be really, really, really expensive to build. And so the numbers just aren't working out.

INSKEEP: Although, is that really a problem? I mean, you, yourself point out that France gets 80 percent of its power - electric power - from nuclear fuel, and that doesn't seem to have bankrupted France.

Mr. GRUNWALD: It's great that we already have the nuclear power that we have. I'm glad we did it 30 years ago. The problem is right now, we really need the emissions fixes that are going to provide the most bang for our buck. The cheapest way of reducing our emissions is through efficiency, more efficient refrigerators, more efficient air conditioners, more efficient light bulbs.

INSKEEP: Let me ask about that, because on the surface that sounds like a very valid argument. Anybody can understand that a more fuel-efficient car uses less oil. But earlier this year we were talking with a Canadian economist named Jeff Rubin, who looked into the numbers on this and he basically argued that efficiency is not as useful as you might think. Let's listen.

Mr. JEF RUBIN (Economist): Efficiency in car engines have improved by about 30 percent, yet your average American driver consumes just as much gasoline as he or she did 30 years ago, because the cost of driving has fallen and we've consumed those efficiency gains in ever more consumption. Efficiency can only lead to conservation if we don't allow the price to fall.

INSKEEP: Michael Grunwald?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GRUNWALD: Well, well, I guess the first response is, just imagine what would've happened to the amount of gasoline we would've used if we hadn't had those efficiency gains. Economies change in slow ways, and right now we have an economy that's set up for people to use their cars.

Perhaps you'll drive slightly more if your car is more efficient. Basically you're still going to have to go to the store, and the difference of whether your car is getting 40 miles to the gallon or 20 miles per gallon is going to make a really big difference.

INSKEEP: Although you touch on another interesting point that you make. You argue that people may have to fundamentally change their behavior.

Mr. GRUNWALD: That's right. I mean I think the way to start reducing emissions is pretty simple. We need to start using more efficient cars that use less gasoline and we need more efficient appliances and factories and light bulbs that use less power.

And at the same time, we're also going to have to drive a little less. That might mean, you know, subsidies for carpooling and telecommuting and mass transit and freight rail. These are sort of tweaks around the edges that can really provide incredible gains for the changes we need to make right now.

INSKEEP: I'm sorry to need to challenge some of the more reassuring modifiers you put in there - using a little bit less energy or making some tweaks around the edges.

When I think about a world population of six billion people that is going up to nine billion people over the next few decades, when I think about developing nations that are going to create more and more industry, use more and more energy, when scientists start doing the numbers on that and they try to figure out a way to actually reduce our total amount of carbon output, given all those pressures to use more energy, they find that we have to make monumental changes in the amount of energy that every individual uses.

Mr. GRUNWALD: Well, let me give you the example of California and the Pacific Northwest, which is different from the rest of the country in that their utilities have an incentive to help people save energy. They don't just make more money when you buy more energy. And that changed in the '70s.

And what you find is California and the Pacific Northwest over the last three decades, per capita energy use has been absolutely flat. And in the rest of the country it's increased 50 percent. So just that one change made a 50 percent difference.

INSKEEP: That's an amazing statistic, but even flat doesn't get you anywhere near an 80 percent reduction.

Mr. GRUNWALD: Well, there's still a lot more that needs to be done nationwide, and that's why you're going to need more efficiency mandates for server farms and computers and plasma TVs and things that we weren't thinking about 30 years ago.

But ultimately, you know, when people see the kind of not particularly expensive changes that can be made without dramatically overturning our lifestyles, reason will win out.

INSKEEP: Michael Grunwald is a senior correspondent for Time magazine. He wrote in Foreign Policy magazine about what he sees as myths about alternative energy.

Thanks very much.

Mr. GRUNWALD: Thanks so much, Steve.

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