Energy efficiency must be our top priority

Geoffrey Orsak
 Geoffrey C. Orsak

Hard to believe, but there I was, a “let’s make a difference” engineer, sitting with the big oil club in a paneled room in downtown Washington, DC. That old Talking Heads lyric kept buzzing between my ears: Well, how did I get here?

Earlier this year, I eagerly accepted the invitation of U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman to join the National Petroleum Council (NPC), created by President Truman to advise the government on oil and gas matters. I didn’t hesitate because it is clear that real solutions to our energy problems require the participation and engagement of everyone involved in the production and consumption of energy.

We convened at the secretary’s request this fall to examine the world a year after the NPC released its study, “Facing the Hard Truths about Energy.” The fact is, they are harder than ever now:

  •  Oil and gas will be part of our energy portfolio for decades, but we cannot rely on them indefinitely and must begin investing in nuclear, clean coal, wind, geothermal, biomass … now.
  • The political goal of “energy independence” is not scientifically realistic — we need to be thinking about increasing our “energy security” by moderating demand and diversifying domestic energy supplies.
  • The energy workforce that will take on these challenges is facing a crisis like few others — more than half of all energy workers, including engineers and scientists, are eligible to retire in the next decade.

When energy companies are involved in providing energy solutions, suspicion comes with the territory: All of us who pay $4/gal for gas are looking for someone to blame and it’s uncomfortable to think of ourselves as codependent with Big Oil.

But we are all part of this problem. Our insatiable demand for energy has been outgrowing supply for years and we just haven’t wanted to deal with it. Many experts say the world economy will need to increase the energy supply by 50 percent over the next two decades.

Bodman used numbers too scary to ignore: “To meet that demand will require major changes and trillions of dollars in annual investment over decades — $22 trillion in all according to the International Energy Agency — around the world, at all stages of the energy cycle.”

This is a staggering prediction. So, what do we do now, throw up our hands? No, as an engineering community, I hope we roll up our sleeves and get after it.

The energy secretary threw down a gantlet, outside the boundaries of politics and the debate over peak oil: The most abundant source of new energy readily available to us, Bodman said, “is that which we waste everyday through inefficiency.”

Of course we must develop alternative sources of energy, but we should make it a hallmark of our industry to be the most energy-efficient community in the industrial food chain. We are starting to see the leading edge of this movement — just watch for Big Blue’s green advertising push in promoting their energy-efficient data centers.

We need to drive this energy-efficient design priority deeper into every corner of technology, from manufacturing through applications and on to recycling. Providing “phase one” of the solution should not be minimized while we go after long-term energy answers we can afford and that the planet can endure.

How did we get here? It almost doesn’t matter. We know who needs to lead the way out.