Misreading the public's mood on energy savings?

The advances in energy-efficient lighting are tough to miss nowadays when you visit the hardware store or home center, where all manner of new lightbulbs are on display. But according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, a group of GOP lawmakers in the House are lined up to reverse the progress, in the name of consumer choice and keeping government off our backs:

On Thursday March 10, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is scheduled to consider a bill (S.395) introduced by Wyoming Republican Sen. Mike Enzi that would repeal efforts to expand the use of more energy-efficient light bulbs and limit consumer choice to the same type of bulb that’s been left virtually unchanged since Thomas Edison helped invent it more than 125 years ago.

House Republican Rep. Joe Barton of Texas has introduced a companion bill (H.R. 91) and Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota has sponsored similar legislation (H.R. 849) that is just as backward-thinking.

The proposals from Enzi, Barton and Bachmann would roll back energy efficiency standards signed into law by President George W. Bush that are designed to increase the efficiency of light bulbs by at least 25 percent. New, more efficient light bulbs are already on the market – including advanced incandescent bulbs that look just like Edison’s invention – and better versions are coming out every day. The bills from

Enzi, Barton and Bachmann, however, would push aside innovation, derail plans for new job-creating lighting factories and eliminate an estimated $10 billion in annual energy costs savings – taking as much as $200 per year out of the checkbooks of every U.S. household.

The NRDC likens the legislation to "giving up your refrigerator for an ice box, trading in your new car for an Edsel or swapping out your big-screen television for a 1800s-style 'magic lantern' video projector." And it points out that the new standards don't eliminate incandescent bulbs - they just require them to waste less energy. (Click here to see the NRDC's fact sheet on the new bulbs.)

Most striking to me is the juxtaposition of the attack on energy-efficiency standards with the news of energy price increases sparked - yet again - by Middle East turmoil.  Do we really want to roll back the clock at a moment when we're again being reminded of the price for our long history of energy profligacy?

Another interesting juxtaposition came via email from the Consumer Federation of America, which paid for a poll in January by Opinion Research Corp. to gauge how Americans feel about appliance-efficiency standards. The CFA says that "home energy costs now take an equal bite out of consumers’ pocketbooks as gasoline expenditures," and that support for government's efforts to promote appliance efficiency is widespread:

  • Nearly all Americans (95%) think it “beneficial for appliances like refrigerators, clothes washers, and air conditioners to become more energy efficient,” with 78% believing this increased efficiency to be “very beneficial.”
  • Nearly all Americans (96%) think improved appliance efficiency is important for personal financial reasons – “lowering your electric bills” – with 80% considering this to be very important. However, large majorities also believe improved appliance efficiency to be important for environmental reasons – because it reduces the nation’s consumption of electricity “to reduce air pollution” (92% important, 77% very important) and “to reduce greenhouse gas emissions” (84% important, 66% very important).
  • Substantial majorities also favor improved energy efficiency of appliances even when this increases the purchase price of appliances. This support predictably varies with the payback period: 3 years (79% favor, 35% favor strongly), 5 years (73% favor, 32% favor strongly), and 10 years (60% favor, 29% favor strongly).
  • Nearly three-quarters of Americans (72%) support “the government setting minimum energy efficiency standards for appliances,” with strong support from 28%. (Click here to see a PDF of the CFA's report.)

The public often seems schizophrenic on these sorts of issues, with answers dependent on how questions are framed.  But the evidence seems strong that most Americans want to spend less on energy of all sorts, and to reduce our exposure to turmoil in the world energy markets.  Is that really any surprise?