Stormy Weather on Energy Outlook With rising energy costs, President Bush reverses course and says he favors energy conservation. An energy expert offers his take on what should be included in an effective energy conservation policy.
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Stormy Weather on Energy Outlook

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Stormy Weather on Energy Outlook

Stormy Weather on Energy Outlook

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You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

Up next, if you thought that high gasoline prices were putting a strain on your family's finances, ooh, just wait until the winter. It's starting to get cold, and natural gas prices--natural gas--hit a record high this week partly because gas production from the Gulf of Mexico, like oil production, took a big blow from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and the end result is that higher heating prices this winter are coming on the heels of the still high gas prices. High enough that this week, President Bush shocked--shocked!--those who had called on him to embrace energy conservation when he reversed his long-standing policy and asked people to conserve energy. Drive less, carpool, take mass transit, shift energy use to non-peak periods.

But lest you think the president has morphed into Jimmy Carter, who put energy conservation high on his list of priorities and called it the moral equivalent of war, this president didn't really go any further with his recommendations. Nothing really concrete this time. No tax incentive policies, nothing that really we could sink our teeth into. But there are energy conservation things that we can do. What more can we do and what changes should be made to our energy policies to avoid a future energy crisis?

That's what we'll be talking about this segment. Our number, 1 (800) 989-8255. Bill Prindle is deputy director and director of policy programs for the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy in Washington. He joins us from our NPR studios in Washington.

Welcome back to the program, Bill.

Mr. BILL PRINDLE (American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy): Thanks. Good to be with you.

FLATOW: What was your reaction to the president doing an about-face there?

Mr. PRINDLE: Well, we're glad to see it. It does represent a changing course for the administration, and we're waiting to see how much beef there is behind the statements.

FLATOW: Now there's a phrase we haven't heard in a while: Where's the beef?

Mr. PRINDLE: Yes. It was Walter Mondale, I believe.

FLATOW: Walter Mondale. How bleak is the picture for this coming winter for natural gas and...

Mr. PRINDLE: It's bad.

FLATOW: ...home heating oil, in general, I guess?

Mr. PRINDLE: It is bad. Natural gas hit $14 a million BTU last week, which is seven times the wholesale price in the 1990s. And heating oil futures are almost as bad. Katrina and Rita hit at a terrible time for the industry, and just when gas was supposed to be going into storage for the winter, it got shut off. And just as refineries were supposed to stop producing gasoline and start producing heating oil, a lot of them got shut down.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. PRINDLE: So we're in a pinch.

FLATOW: Right. And your organization, the ACEEE, if I might call it that, on its Web site came up with recommendations, ramping up funding for new and existing programs in the 2006 budget cycle. Let's go through some of those. First, you say that we need to have more money put into public education...

Mr. PRINDLE: That's right.

FLATOW: ...about how to conserve.

Mr. PRINDLE: That's right. Congress actually did in the energy bill in August authorize a $90 million public education program, and we're encouraged to see that the Department of Energy is to announce something on Monday. We're hoping that it'll come something close to the $90 million level. My suspicion is that this spending will be somewhat lower than that.

FLATOW: Well, could you say that at least the president made a beginning in his public statement to conserve energy? That's sort of a public education program.

Mr. PRINDLE: Yeah. That's very important when the president makes a statement like that. We're glad to see it. We welcome it. And again, we're looking for the--you know, the muscle behind the rhetoric, and that's where the rubber will meet the road, so to speak.

FLATOW: Give me--all right. Let's talk about that muscle. When you say `muscle,' exactly what do you mean?

Mr. PRINDLE: Well, we're talking about significant spending on public education. For example, in California, when they had an energy crisis in 2001, the state spent $30 million in that state alone on a public education program, and that contributed to a 7 percent drop in energy use for the state. And that's really what took the air out of that crisis. So we'd be looking for something substantially larger from the federal government if they really expect to have a national impact.

FLATOW: What kinds of things did they recommend out there?

Mr. PRINDLE: Well, the other thing in California...


Mr. PRINDLE: ...they had was an existing set of programs available, from utilities and local governments, that they could direct people to go and take advantage of. Right now across the country, we have a real patchwork, we have maybe 20 states with good efficiency programs. We have 30 states with little or nothing out there. So some customers may be left with little real guidance as to what's needed.

FLATOW: Yeah. You know, there's been a lot been made of the fact that the new car standard, the CAFE standards, you know, the fuel standards--the administration has said, `Look, we've changed those fuel standards,' but, in effect, they really just divided SUVs from the rest of the cars and gave...

Mr. PRINDLE: That's right.


Mr. PRINDLE: There is a proposed rule that came out in August that covers the light truck class, which includes minivans and SUVs. However, the mileage increase in that rule was very modest, only, you know, a couple of miles per gallon, and also, they created different size classes within that light truck category. So all a manufacturer has to do is kind of stretch a vehicle a little bit to push it into a higher class and potentially avoid tighter fuel economy standards. So--and that doesn't even mention the fact that they failed to include the largest SUVs, like the Hummers, in the rule at all. So those vehicles are not even covered by fuel economy standards.

FLATOW: To me, this is the most mind-boggling of all issues. I mean, because the world--and, I mean, China and Europe and other places--really, really want, you know, cheaper cars. And they're willing...

Mr. PRINDLE: Right.

FLATOW: buy them and they're not going to buy them from us, are they?

Mr. PRINDLE: No. The Chinese have currently the most stringent fuel economy standards in the world, and they're likely to tighten them again, and there's cars being built in China, for sale in China, to meet those standards.

FLATOW: And so what don't we get it--we just don't get it. You know, just to--I just don't--and there's no answer to it, I guess, but...

Mr. PRINDLE: Well, the market is beginning to speak. We've seen gasoline sales in September drop about 4 percent compared to the previous September, so you know, people are...


Mr. PRINDLE: ...spending a little less at the pump. People are trading in their SUVs in some numbers for more fuel-efficient cars, so the market is working, to an extent, but we also have a very affluent society still, so that a lot of us can still afford to just kind of groan and pay that $3 a gallon gasoline, and as long as that's happening, we're not going to get quite the response we need to get.

FLATOW: Let me go to the phones, 1 (800) 989-8255. Bob in Traverse City, Michigan. Hi, Bob.

BOB (Caller): Yeah. How you doing today?


BOB: Well, first of all, I know a lot of things are long term and spoken long term and that's great, but immediately, I think we should go back to the 55 mile an hour national speed limit. I've got a light truck. I know for a fact how much better my mileage is at 55, and yet the people that seem to complain the most are the people that are driving 65, 75 miles an hour. They're pulling boats. Soon, they'll be pulling snowmobile trailers. Something's got to be done, and talk about the administration--they have to enforce it. I mean, this cannot be something that's a paper tiger. We've got to do it, and it's practical. We can do it now.

FLATOW: Bill, what do you say?

Mr. PRINDLE: That's an excellent point. One of the things we've pointed out in previous announcements is that if you reduce your speed from 65 to 55, you're going to increase your miles per gallon about 10 percent. Because the effect of the aerodynamic drag is so much stronger. The drag is related to the square of the speed of the car. So, you know, the faster you go, the faster you build up wind resistance...


Mr. PRINDLE: ...and conversely, when you slow down, you proportionately save that much more.

FLATOW: All right, Bob, thanks for calling.

BOB: Thank you. Bye.

FLATOW: Bye. How much--the president has been talking about opening up the--you know, Alaska to drilling and talking about the Gulf Coast and the--more off of--you know, open up new oil fields there. How much would that make an impact and how soon would we see something from that?

Mr. PRINDLE: Well, unfortunately, the North American oil fields will never reach their peak production, which occurred in 1970. Geologists unanimously will agree we can temporarily slow the decline if we try to drill farther and deeper in North America, including in the wildlife refuge, including offshore, with all the environmental risks that that entails, but the bottom line is North America is a tapped out oil market as far as exploration goes. The big new finds are going to happen in Russia, in the coast of Africa, places like that, Central Asia. So the idea that we can somehow regain energy independence by poking more holes in the North American continent just runs against geological fact.

FLATOW: How much can we save in making more efficient appliances and...

Mr. PRINDLE: Well, quite a bit.


Mr. PRINDLE: Quite a bit. Again, the energy bill in August contained standards for 16 products, so we were encouraged by that. So that'll make a dent, particularly in electricity use, over the next 15 to 20 years. Our potential studies show that in the electricity sector, we could reduce our total usage 25 to 30 percent over a period of time, of course. It takes--can't do that instantaneously.

FLATOW: And are there any incentives needed or an educational campaign to tell people this could--you know, if they do this, they could save energy or what do you think?

Mr. PRINDLE: Well, yeah, standards are one thing, but standards are a minimum regulation. I mean, they tell you what's the worst product you can legally manufacture. Certainly, there are ways to go higher. Programs like the Energy Star program that EPA and the Department of Energy run promote, on a voluntary basis, the higher efficiency appliances. So we really encourage people to use that program. It's on the Web at We also have our own lists of high-efficiency appliances at So there are certainly a lot of opportunities--you know, if you were looking at replacing heating and cooling equipment, there are also--Congress did tuck a few modest tax credits for some types of energy efficiency equipment and for vehicles into the energy bill last August. So starting January 1st, there will be some incentives out there for folks who want to buy high-efficiency equipment.

FLATOW: Are there--they put any incentives in for wind turbines and subsidies for electricity generated from those?

Mr. PRINDLE: Yeah. There's a separate set of credits...


Mr. PRINDLE: ...known as the production tax credits, which pay wind providers and other renewable energy generators per kilowatt hour that they sell.

FLATOW: What's the best thing that businesses can do? And, you know, when we talk about businesses, we talk about the big businesses, but actually 99 percent of all the businesses in America are little mom-and-pop organizations.

Mr. PRINDLE: Right. Right.

FLATOW: You know, can they do anything to help? You know, can they get their landlords to do anyth--I'm sure they don't own these buildings, these little mom-and-pop organizations.

Mr. PRINDLE: Well, a lot of small businesses are victims of what we call a classic market barrier, which is the landlord-tenant problem...


Mr. PRINDLE: ...where the landlord owns the property and has to make the investments, but the poor little tenant pays the energy bills.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. PRINDLE: There are some standards that we helped get into the energy bill that will improve the efficiency of things like commercial refrigeration, those glass door beverage coolers that we all like...


Mr. PRINDLE: reach into.

FLATOW: They drive me--the ones that are open in the supermarket, you know, the freezer cases...

Mr. PRINDLE: Right.

FLATOW: ...that stand there with no glass on them and you...

Mr. PRINDLE: Right.

FLATOW: ...and they just air-condition the whole store. That's got to be a giant energy waster.

Mr. PRINDLE: Right. So those kinds of equipment are going to get more efficient. That'll help the small business. Lighting efficiency is improving, so updating your lighting system can help almost any business owner, and just keeping an eye on your temperature controls. You know, don't cool it any further than you have to or don't heat the place any hotter than you need to. Those kinds of things can always make a difference.

FLATOW: And big business, can they--you know, we used to--I used to have a list of these from the '70s, when we were talking about energy conservation seriously, a book of things that people can do, and I remember one thing was--for big businesses, was just to turn the lights off in the building at night, you know.

Mr. PRINDLE: That's right.

FLATOW: Let the cleaning people turn them on and turn them off if they need to.

Mr. PRINDLE: That's what we used to call energy management back in the '70s and '80s. It's just--you know, it's just good common sense, good housekeeping, and...

FLATOW: What else can they do?

Mr. PRINDLE: tend to...


Mr. PRINDLE: What else can big business do?

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. PRINDLE: Well, they can automate that function through energy management control systems so that they don't have to rely on the night custodial staff or the employees to...

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. PRINDLE: ...remember to do that. They can upgrade their windows through putting in high-performance glazing. They can upgrade their air-conditioning equipment. And if they do it as a whole package, they can actually make the cooling system smaller and less expensive because they can reduce the load in the building with better lighting and better windows. So if businesses are thinking about building new facilities or doing rehabs, they should really think about the whole building and how to get, you know, the capital costs down. That's what really gets businesses excited, when it's cheaper to put the stuff in, let alone cheaper to run.

FLATOW: Talking with Bill Prindle of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy this hour on TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow.

Going to the phones to Karen in Redwood City, California.

KAREN (Caller): Hi. I'm currently baking cookies in my gas oven, and we did switch during a remodeling to gas appliances from electric. And I'm now wondering with the price of gas increasing so drastically, should I be plugging in an electric heater this winter?

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah. Was that a mistake? You know, we knew how high electricity bills are, but now is gas higher than electricity to heat and cool?

Mr. PRINDLE: Well, in a Btu sense, gas is still a bit cheaper per Btu than electricity. It depends on the appliance. So if you're using a microwave to heat food, that can be a very efficient way to heat certain things. Of course you're not going to bake cookies in a microwave. So...


Mr. PRINDLE: To bake cookies, a gas oven should do you fine.

FLATOW: Or your...

KAREN: Thank you.

FLATOW: All right. Thanks for calling.

The president did say to shift your usage into the cheaper hours. That does seem like a good, you know, recommendation. Will the utility companies go along with you if you do that? Can we come up with a system--well, you know, if I'm going to do my laundry, you know, at midnight maybe when it's not a peak demand, maybe I should get a cheaper rate.

Mr. PRINDLE: Well, right now that's a strategy that in most cases helps the utility but doesn't help the consumer...

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. PRINDLE: ...because most consumers are not on time-of-day rates which require special electronic meters. So until we get to the point that every home has smart metering and we have pricing that reflects hourly costs, that kind of strategy is not going to be helpful to the consumer. Again...


Mr. PRINDLE:'ll help the utility, it may reduce the risk of blackouts, stuff like that, but...

FLATOW: Right. Yeah. Well, so...

Mr. PRINDLE:'s not going to be a direct monetary benefit.

FLATOW: We need a dryer that's hooked up to the Internet. Then you can monitor without going through the, you know, meter.

Mr. PRINDLE: There you go. Well, actually there are thermostat systems now that are Internet-addressable and there have been pilot programs where the utility will offer you a special price that's low most of the time, but when they get really in a pinch they shut--you know, they turn down your thermostat by a few degrees, and that gives you a lower price on average, but, you know, gives you a signal to cut back during those few hours when it's really expensive.

FLATOW: I've got only time for one more suggestion. What about the agriculture, you know, infrastructure? Where can we save energy there?

Mr. PRINDLE: Now farmers are really being hit hard by this in two ways. One is the on-farm energy use and the other is fertilizer, which of course is made almost entirely from natural gas. So their materials are expensive and their operating costs are expensive. They can certainly reduce energy use in things like cooling systems, if they're in dairy operations. Milk cooling is really a high-cost item. You know, fans, pumps, things like that, there's high-efficiency equipment available. So, you know, those things can help. And again, turning stuff off when you're not using it--don't let the machinery idle 'cause you think you're going to use it in an hour.

FLATOW: Right, right, right.

Mr. PRINDLE: So...

FLATOW: All right...

Mr. PRINDLE: Commonsense stuff, too.

FLATOW: All right, Bill. Thanks for coming back and talking about energy efficiency again.

Mr. PRINDLE: You're most welcome.

FLATOW: We'll follow this.

Bill Prindle is deputy director and director of policy programs for the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, and he's in Washington, DC.

We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we're going to switch gears and talk about--there's a new canine flu virus that's--canines, dogs. It's attacking dogs. It actually has come over from the horse side. It's gone from one species to another. And it's pretty dangerous. We'll talk about it and talk about whether your pooches may have a problem. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

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