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New Study Finds US Fails to Capitalize on Energy Efficiency

A new study says one of the best and least expensive ways for Americans to cut their demand for imported oil and reduce climate-changing carbon emissions is to use energy more efficiently.

The study, by one of the world's leading science organizations, points to numerous existing technologies that it says can boost energy efficiency, improve the nation's energy security and save American taxpayers a lot of money.

The report is the work of a select panel from the 46,000-member American Physical Society and presents strategies aimed at reducing energy consumption in the transportation and building sectors.

Study panel chairman Burton Richter -- a 1976 Nobel Laureate in physics -- says the United States must face the fact that it accounts for 20 percent of the world's annual energy consumption. "Transportation and buildings sectors use two-thirds of our primary energy and [generate] two-thirds of our greenhouse gases, and in both cases this is far larger than is necessary," he says.

The report targets the light trucks, cars, minivans and sport utility vehicles currently popular with many American consumers. It recommends raising federal fuel efficiency standards to 50 miles per gallon -- about 20 kilometers per liter -- by 2030. Richter says that goal can be reached with investment in more advanced technologies that include more efficient internal combustion engines, diesels, improved hybrids and lighter-weight materials.

The study cites other vehicle options, such as electric-gasoline hybrids, plug-in and battery electrics and hydrogen-fuel-cell powered cars. It notes, however, that hydrogen cars, often promoted by the Bush administration, are not likely to move into the marketplace any time soon because of technical problems in fuel-cell development and battery design.

Potentials for making more efficient use of energy aren't limited to the transportation sector, according to David Goldston, the vice-chair of the study panel and former chief of staff of the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Science. Goldston says office and residential buildings also offer a wide range of opportunities for energy conservation.

"First that we can keep our building energy consumption at the same level in 2030 as it is currently, simply by using technologies that currently exist," he says.

The American Physical Society report also recommends speeding up research and development of so-called "zero energy" buildings, or those that use no fossil fuels. It calls for widespread construction of zero energy homes by 202O and of commercial buildings by 2030.

Goldston says that won't happen without additional investment in this technology. "The federal government basically has very, very little research going on in commercial buildings now. That's one of the areas that has seen the greatest drop in recent decades."

Goldston says funding for energy efficiency has declined and should be brought back at least to levels it enjoyed in the 1970s. In 21st century terms, he says, that would mean an annual budget of $250 million.

In addition to increased funding, the study recommends that Congress adopt new policies promoting energy efficiency. Among its suggestions: whole building energy codes, energy audits and labeling, and financial incentives for the purchase of efficient technologies and appliances.

"If these recommendations go forward," Goldston says, "the public will be better informed about what choices will be there, there will be more technology available because of the research and development … and there will also be policies to make it more likely that they take advantage of them because there will be incentives for them to do so."

The American Physical Society report concludes that even though increasing energy efficiency is a far easier and cheaper strategy than tapping new energy supplies, the United States is not taking full advantage of it. The society is working to get that message to the presidential candidates and members of Congress, who can turn their recommendations into law.