Our attitude toward energy conservation

October 2003

Energy conservation was big in the late 1970s and the 1980s. Following the oil embargo, energy prices escalated, and consumers became worried about our dependence on foreign oil and the high cost of both gasoline and heating fuels. President Carter led the way on conservation with his fireside chats, wearing a cardigan sweater, and telling us to turn down our thermostats in the winter months.

The emphasis on energy conservation seemed to work. Many of our employees engaged in car pooling as a way to conserve gasoline. We actually had to purchase a bike rack for our office, as employees began riding bikes to work during the warmer part of the year. More dramatically, homes were being reinsulated and manufacturers began to produce more efficient products.

We are much more efficient today than thirty years ago in many ways. Unless we drive a Hummer like Arnold Swartzenager, it is likely our vehicles use less fuel. On average, our homes are insulated much better, and the appliances in these homes are much more efficient.

So, why aren’t we using much less electricity and much less fuel overall? Why is Nodak routinely increasing the transformer size for many of our customers to accommodate increased demand for electricity? The answer to these questions likely has something to do with technology and attitude.

Technology has given us so many new things that are affordable, trendy, and fun. Computers lead the way, but most electronic devices have gotten cheaper, and we are buying more of them. For example, how many of us had four or more television sets in our homes thirty years ago? It is not uncommon today.

I recently talked about this issue with a friend. The discussion was about air conditioning, and I explained we do not offer an incentive rate for controlled air conditioning because we believe most of our customers are unwilling to experience discomfort for a relatively small savings on their electric bill. My friend confirmed our position. He explained that he is more than willing to pay $4.50 for a beer when he goes to a UND hockey game. If he is willing to do that, he sure as heck is not going to have a warm house in August so he can save $5.00 on his power bill.

In general, our attitude today is that we are willing to make a commitment to conservation by buying more efficient products, but we are not very excited about being inconvenienced in our day-to-day life. At Nodak, we long ago sold our bike rack, and to my knowledge, we all come to work in individual cars. In this regard, I think we are pretty much normal in today’s society.

There may be impetus for things to change in the future. After decades of low-cost, stable natural gas prices, the future for this energy source looks more volatile. When natural gas prices increase, not only do heating costs for many people, but electricity costs also are driven up. This is because most generation built during the last 20 years has been fueled with natural gas, and the market price for wholesale electricity purchases follows the price of natural gas. Most speculators have similar expectations for gasoline, fuel oil, and propane.

It may be the time for us to begin working on our attitude toward energy conservation. Conventional wisdom tells us that it is unrealistic to expect all energy costs to remain low in the future. The cost to have our thermostats left low in the summer and high in the winter, to have computers and television sets operating in every room, and to drive around by ourselves is likely to be considerably higher. Chances are, we will think about doing more than simply buying energy efficient products.