This is the first of a regular monthly column by energy consultant Daniel R. Koenigshofer.


Water shortages in parts of the U.S. and other countries are currently causing great inconvenience. By that I mean people’s normal routines are being interrupted. Temporarily, at least, habits have changed. Flushing away five gallons of fresh water for one cup of urine seems quite wasteful when water is in short supply. It should seem wasteful all the time. I would like to think that a few of the water-conserving measures instituted now will become permanent. Unfortunately, actions in the aftermath of the 1973 oil shortage don’t give much cause for hope. However, like it or not, resource conserving lifestyles must evolve soon, even in the affluent countries.

Everyone agrees that supplies of fossil fuels, like fresh water and good land, are finite. U.S. domestic natural gas reserves will be severely depleted in ten years (1966 wasn’t very long ago) and annual production will probably never be as high as it has been. The outlook for oil (including Alaskan and off-shore) is not much better. Even the most optimistic government figures show production peaking in 1984 — which seems like an appropriate year. Other knowledgeable sources claim that U.S. oil production will never again reach past levels.

Why can’t we buy oil from other countries, you ask? First, their reserves are limited, too. Second, while we can buy from them now without serious problems, when the demand exceeds the supply, the available oil will go to the highest bidders. This may well be the U.S., but that means we are denying Mexico, Vietnam, or Sri Lanka of what little they are accustomed to using. And their use is for much more vital services than, say, moving a 5,000-pound car to the grocery. There will be some very unhappy countries when they can no longer afford oil. Current world conflicts may look minor compared to this situation.

Nor can nuclear power fill this gap between supply and demand. Beyond the overwhelming environmental problems nuclear plants present, fuel supply is limited, capital is difficult to obtain, and the time required to bring the plants on-line make nuclear power an unlikely solution.

The point is, changes in our energy consumption are inevitable. In the short-term they need not be drastic. After all, Sweden and West Germany have GNP’s per capita comparable to the U.S., yet use about one half as much energy per capita. The major reason for this discrepancy is the phenomenal amount of energy consumed by U.S. motor vehicles. In 1975, U.S. motor vehicles alone burned more energy than was used for all purposes in India and China combined.

Thus, the best place to start our change toward a less energy intensive society is our use of the automobile. The accompanying figure* shows the breakdown of residential energy consumption in Orange County, N.C. As shown, the auto consumes twice as much energy as all other household uses combined. I find that astounding.

The report of a recent Gallup survey on attitudes toward the 55 mph speed limit contains a revealing explanation of why middle class Americans resent the lower speed limit. It says that when it comes to energy-saving programs, the concepts of waste and success can become fused in their minds: “We have saved to become rich; once affluent, we waste to publicize our success.” Asking these people to practice energy conservation is like asking them to conceal their prosperity.

There are, of course, alternatives to such excessive automobile travel. Some of them are bicycle, walk, take a bus or a train (not an airplane), car pool, combine trips, stay home. Each of us should consider these options every time we start for the car.

Ideally the actions should just be a part of an overall conservation ethic which would include all resources. Energy waste, like water waste right now, must become socially unacceptable.

Another area where massive energy savings can be achieved is in the home. A study by the American Institute of Architects estimates that a reasonable program of retrofitting old homes with energy conserving materials combined with energy efficient new construction could save as much energy in 1990 as we expect to get from all nuclear power plants. Everyone knows the “how-to” of home energy conservation. Hopefully the “why” in terms of economics and the environment is becoming more clear.

Finally, the changes which are around the corner will involve a shift away from our current energy sources toward more abundant fuels. Certainly no fuel source is more plentiful than sunlight. Presently about one third of our energy is used to supply heat at temperatures below 350ºF. This type of heating can be supplemented by solar energy. Solar water heating is cost competitive with present electric rates. In contrast to the situation today, in the near future a unit of energy supplied by oil or natural gas will probably cost more than one from electricity. Thus, solar power will soon be competitive with those fuels as well. In fact, right now if solar costs were compared to conventional electric power production on an equal basis in terms of public assistance, financing costs, environmental/public health costs, taxation, and net energy gained, solar looks very attractive.

We can’t, however, look to technology to solve all our resource problems. Lifestyle changes toward a less consumptive society are necessary because oil, natural gas, and uranium supplies will run out. Estimates of the depletion date vary but most agree that annual production will peak in fourteen years or less. This is very soon. Now is the time for all of us to begin the transition to a resource conserving society.

*The figure is available as a PDF only. Click here to download.

Excerpts From “Energy In Orange County”

The big picture, that is, the story of global supply and competition for energy, is the story of oil and the Middle East. This is true because oil is the fuel we love the most and the Middle East is where our future imported oil is likely to originate.

Oil, however, must be regarded as only a part of the passing scene. Even in the Middle East, oil supplies are limited. This applies equally to natural gas. . . . There seems to be no end to the list of futuristic energy sources, any one of which constitutes a simple answer to the energy problem. The one most often proposed is “solar energy”, but there are many more. “Fuel cells”, “geothermal energy”, “breeder reactors” “fusion reactors”, and even “windmills” are frequently discussed. Any one of these can and has been proposed as the ultimate source, which, if developed, would solve all of our problems. An enthusiast for any one of these alternative sources is often able to convince many listeners that there is no real problem after all.

The difficulty with most of these futuristic plans and proposals is just that: they are suggestions that have meaning only if they are considered in relation to the distant future. Any one of them surely has possibilities of providing significant amounts of energy after the turn of the century but none will make a significant contribution to the total energy that will be available during the next 25 years. It is extremely unlikely that any combination of technologies even if kindled by whatever crash programs one can realistically prescribe can provide more than two-thirds of the 190 quadrillion BTU’s of energy projected by historic growth considerations to be needed by the U.S. in the year 2000.

If this statement is accepted as a basis for further discussion, the inevitability of a great future energy gap must also be accepted. This gap can be closed only by reliance on foreign energy sources or by conservation.

Conservation is inevitable because one cannot consume more energy than the sources provide. Society may have difficulty learning this simple truth, however, because its economy is not geared to work that way. We are all accustomed to operating at a deficit or on credit. This may work with dollars, but it won’t work with energy. You don’t promise your automobile that if it will just go on to Dallas without gasoline, you’ll reimburse it later.


It is extremely difficult for an individual citizen, or for any county, city, or state, to make a drastic change in its energy demand while living what can be called a “normal” life. This feature of energy use can be described as a sort of inertia or momentum that arises from the close association of energy use to the life style in which we live. To illustrate, our housing patterns make the private car almost a necessity. Our agricultural techniques demand gasoline for tractors, energy-intensive fertilizers for the soil and insecticides for the plants. After the harvest we continue to invest energy into a series of energy-using stages as the food is processed, refrigerated, displayed for sale, and finally placed in electronic ovens. This chain of events represents an expenditure of energy many fold greater than the energy in the food we finally eat. Our homes represent another example. Most of them were not built with energy conservation as a high priority and are susceptible to only modest rather than revolutionary improvements in energy efficiency. Furthermore, not only will these houses exist for many years to come, but architects and builders are not now building homes that differ greatly from those previously described. These inertial characteristics of our energy appetite apply to almost everything that we do. The simple fact is that we have a life style based on physical structures that guarantee high energy demands for as far into the future as these physical structures last or continue to be manufactured or used.

A uniform energy accounting system should be established in every branch of town and county government. Individual government buildings should be metered in such a way that those buildings that are efficient and those buildings that are inefficient in their use of energy can be readily identified. Periodic reports should be prepared and be made available for public inspection.

A major effort in energy conservation in transportation should be undertaken. A tentative list of actions that should be considered follows. Bikeways independent of automobile traffic lanes should be established; computerized car pooling should be investigated; van pooling systems of transportation should be encouraged linking Chapel Hill, Hillsborough, and the Research Triangle Park; disincentives for travel by private automobile should be developed; use of satellite parking with ready buses to the university and downtown Chapel Hill should be explored; shelters should be provided at the bus stops to encourage all-weather use of the buses; traffic lights should be synchronized to enhance traffic efficiency.

Both new and old construction should be analyzed with regard to prospective use of energy. Local builders should be encouraged to make energy analyses available to consumers and to emphasize energy efficiency in their choice of models of new construction. The developers of new shopping malls, government buildings, industrial buildings, and large commercial establishments should be required to prepare environment-energy impact statements in advance of initiating construction.


— by Daniel R. Koenigshofer and Joseph W. Straley, in Energy in Orange County, a report by the Orange County Energy Conservation Task Force to the Orange County Board of Commissioners.