The lazy nation’s guide to reducing greenhouse gases

By John Kerastas, President, JK Marketing Consulting

When one of the most popular TV shows in the nation is “The Biggest Loser,” watched by millions of Americans lying around on sofas, you have a great metaphor for the country’s national character.

So, let me tell you something you already know: as a nation, we’re lazy. That description applies to our energy policy, too.

Maybe “lazy” is the wrong word. Maybe we’re just plain incapable of making tough decisions and taking action on the big issues, like reducing greenhouse gases.

Tough Decisions

Here are some tough GHG issues that we just can’t seem to get our national arms around (you can add the ones I forgot):

* Imposing a national carbon tax or cap-and-trade program

* Making it easier to build nuclear power plants and safely store nuclear waste

* Creating a national renewable portfolio standard

* Building a super transmission line to transfer renewable energy to parts of the country that don’t have good renewable assets (i.e. the Deep South)

* Coming to grips with the real price of oil (i.e. the price of GHG and the cost of putting dollars into the pockets of people who don’t like us very much)

All these issues seem too expensive, too divisive and, well, just too hard.

Knowing our national character, I think it’s time to propose a strategy I’m calling “The Lazy Nation’s Strategy for Reducing GHG.” Since the program doesn’t call for any really tough decisions, we might decide to actually do something.

Not-So-Tough Decisions

A key requirement of the lazy strategy is to realize that, on a national level, we’re pretty lazy. So this strategy doesn’t expect us to a) build anything really new big and expensive, or b) create any groundbreaking, New-Deal-like laws or policies.

In spite of those requirements, and after a really good nap, I want to say that there are a couple of comparatively easy-to-implement programs that would make a difference in GHG emissions almost immediately.

1. Dial up our use of natural gas and dial down our use of coal.

2. Make energy efficiency a national imperative.

Are these my own remarkable insights into a short-term program the GHG problem? No, these are the conclusions of a variety of experts who actually know something.

Dialing up Natural Gas

I recently attended a speech by Clarence Cazalot, President and CEO, Marathon Oil at the Executive Club of Chicago.

In that speech he said:

“Because natural gas emits half the CO2 of coal, our nation could, in the near term, reduce GHG’s emissions with relatively small investment by maximizing the utilization of our installed gas-fired generation capacity to a higher level while retaining peaking capacity and not risking reserve margin.”

Cazalot gave me another important fact to chew on: “”our natural gas fired generation capacity exceeds that of our coal fired capacity, but we operate the gas fired plants at 25 percent utilization, on average, versus over 70 percent utilization for coal.”

That’s a great lazy strategy — make better use of something we already have (and make less use of coal). While we don’t have natural gas plants in all the right places, we do have a lot of plants that are nicely located.

But, do we have enough natural gas? Won’t we quickly run out of natural gas and be back in the same mess? The short answer is “no.”

Cazalot said it is estimated that “”the U.S. is now sitting on between 50 and 100 years of natural gas resources at current rates of consumption.”

Now, can we just wave our hands and increase natural gas consumption while decreasing coal usage?

No. (I already tried that.)

But we can have the Energy Secretary Steven Chu sit down with the utility companies and explain that if the industry doesn’t take immediate steps, the federal government will. I’d be happy to loan Chu my 44 oz. Louisville Slugger for the meeting.

Now the “Greenie” in me is not too crazy about this — improving our GHG emissions by doing something less bad. In the GHG race, though, we only get points for making a difference, and this would make a big, big difference in a relatively short time.

Making Energy Efficiency a National Imperative

Now I know that efficiency is out of character for us Americans — we’re known for being wasteful, not efficient. But I’m convinced that we can become much more energy efficient without a lot of work. Why? Because it’s cheap, and, as a country, we Americans love cheap solutions.

* Efficiency is the lowest-cost GHG reduction option, according to the Pew Center for Global Warming’s recent study, titled “From Shop Floor to Top Floor: Best Business Practices in Energy Efficiency.” The study asserts that “On a levelized lifecycle cost basis, efficiency costs less than conventional energy suppliers.”

* A research study from McKenzie quantifies the fact that efficiency programs are cost effective investments even if GHG issues are ignored (see below)

Figure 1

* Cazalot asserts that “”the greatest source of near-term GHG emissions reductions come from energy efficiency, which is the least expensive and fast means of doing so.”

Here’s another couple of reasons to race down the efficiency path:

* We already have the technologies in hand to become much more efficient: insulation, advanced control systems, super-efficient lighting systems and the like.

* We have money to finance a lot of efficiency programs — the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act helps many companies afford these programs.

* We’ve found out that efficiency programs are sound investments even if GHG are not a factor (again, see above and really look at it this time).

So are we as a nation aggressively ratcheting up our investments in energy efficiency programs?

Of course not (we’re too lazy).

The folks at Johnson Controls track this (click here). As shown below, national investments in efficiency programs — the quickest way to reduce GHG — have leveled off.

This brings me to somewhat of a dilemma: if efficiency programs are already relatively easy to implement and financially rewarding, how do we motivate ourselves to do the easy work of installing them?

I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking of writing a TV show about muscular blue-collar efficiency studs that make house calls on lonely American housewives.

Working title? “The Biggest Winners.”

Author: John Kerastas is the President of JK Marketing Consulting and a consultant to the energy industry. Previously he has worked at UPC Solar and SmartSignal Corp. He has also co-chaired the 2009 solar energy track of the Electric Power conference, participated in two web-streaming videos, and has written six industry articles over the past year. You can reach him at


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