Explainer: Conservation and 'Negawatts'
The quickest, cheapest way to clean up our energy act | Photo: Nicholas Liby/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Remember the old recycling mantra from 20 years ago? It went "Reduce, Re-use, Recycle," a way of reminding people where their priorities ought to be in approaching their own trash habits. First you cut down on the amount of stuff you generate in the first place, then you reuse what you can, and only then do you commit your glass jar or aluminum can to the expensive, energy-intensive process of recycling.

There's a priority list in the renewable energy world too. It's all well and good to shift our energy habits away from burning coal and petroleum and natural gas, but each of the alternatives for energy generation carries its own environmental cost in construction and in operation.

But there's more than one way to take a 1,000-megawatt coal-fired plant offline. We can build 1,000 megawatts of alternative, renewable energy generating capacity, or we could cut down on how much energy we use, cutting our demand by 1,000 megawatts.

There's even a term of art for energy "created" by conservation reducing demand: "negawatts," as in negative watts, or watts once wasted that are wasted no longer.

Energy conservation is one of those topics that causes even avid energy wonks to glaze over. Cutting back on energy use conjures up images, for those of us of a certain age, of Jimmy Carter wearing a sweater in the Oval Office -- or the more recent image of former Vice President Dick Cheney dismissing conservation as a bit of useless "personal virtue." It's not nearly as sexy to encourage weatherstripping your house, or tuning off light switches when you leave the room, as it is to talk about building spiffy new-tech renewable generating facilities. And talking about using less sounds to many Americans like doing without. Privation. Freezing in the dark.

The good news is that we can conserve energy without giving up much in the way of creature comforts. In fact, we can conserve enough energy that it will save us a lot of money, freeing that cash up for other pursuits.

This is because Americans use a lot of energy. Over the last few years the US has consistently ranked in the top ten countries in energy use per capita, with the average American using the equivalent of just under 8 metric tons of oil. Most countries with standards of living com,parable to or higher than ours use much less energy per capita: the UK, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and Switzerland get by with about half the energy per person that we use.

(We're not the worst. Canada uses about as much energy per person as the US does. Of the industrialized countries that use more energy per capita, Iceland -- at number 2 -- probably ought to be excused: two thirds of its electrical consumption goes into smelting aluminum, which is done using renewable energy from the country's massive geothermal infrastructure. Little Luxembourg, with a relatively low population, is home to energy intensive steel, rubber and chemical plants. Probably unsurprisingly, the petroleum-driven nations of Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar are at the top of the list. Qatar "wins" by a wide margin, likely due to its reliance on desalination plants for its drinking water -- and its state prohibition on water meters.

So we're not the worst, but our large population relative to the other countries at the top of the list means that reducing our per capita consumption even by a percentage point or two means a very big difference in the amount of energy we use overall.

And we're not limited to a percentage point or two: we could probably cut our overall consumption by close to a third without feeling much pain. A 2009 study by McKinsey found that the US could cut its non-transportation energy use by 23 percent. In that same year, the National Academy of Sciences looked at overall US energy use including transportation, and found that we could cut that by almost a third by 2030.

We can't just make the decision as individuals to save all that energy and have it happen as easily as turning off the light in the closet when you shut the door. Some of that energy use is baked into society's infrastructure as we now know it, as anyone living in a car-dependent suburb can tell you. Some of it is policy-driven: enacting strict mileage standards for vehicles at the Federal level will help auto owners ten years from now use less fuel. Industry and government have it in their power to conserve a majority of the energy Americans waste.

But individuals aren't helpless to save power. Our decisions count for something too, whether it's turning off that light or replacing the incandescent lightbulb with a far more efficient LED version. Individuals can adjust their thermostats to use less energy heating or cooling. Individuals can make the decision to forego the large SUV for a small hybrid, or a bicycle. Individuals can turn their computers and other electronics off at the power strip when they're not in use, thus eliminating the small but incrementally important power draw for appliances in "standby." (This is true for chargers as well, even when they're not charging an appliance.)

You can find more ways to conserve energy in your own life here.