I was irked by this segment on NPR news today. The energy bill recently passed by the Senate mandates higher efficiency for car engines and light bulbs, among other things. My gripe is that, even if consumers are buying too much gas and electricity (given negative externalities from carbon), what if the specific strategies mandated by this bill are not the best way to reduce consumption? Ideally, we would want to raise the price of energy, so that carbon and other environmental issues are accounted for, and then let each consumer decide the best course of action for himself/herself.

I switched from a Toyota Sienna minivan to Prius in September. My gas consumption declined by about half. (My driving is about 75% city / 25% highway.) The thought has struck me, though, that I could just as easily have kept the minivan and cut my driving in half, to achieve the same reduction. In my current lifestyle as a college student within walking distance (a mile) of school and a grocery store, I certainly could substitute toward other modes of transport or just make fewer nonessential trips (fewer, larger trips to the grocery store, not seeing movies in the theater, etc.). As it turns out, I might have chosen the Prius over the Sienna even if it guzzled gas at a similar rate, because parking and driving a smaller vehicle is SO much nicer and more convenient in a city. But I’m sure there are other Americans who would prefer to buy a sports car or a truck and make fewer trips, as opposed to buying a smaller car and making more trips. There are other ways to reduce consumption than through increased efficiency.

Same thing with light bulbs. In the NPR piece, improvements in the cost and quality of compact flourescent bulbs are apparently touted as justification for the new stricter standards on energy efficiency, which favor CFB’s. But that’s besides the point. Rather than squabbling over whether CFB’s produce light as good as that of incandescents, why not have a cap and trade scheme, which will increase the cost of energy? Then consumers can decide whether they will pay a premium for incandesents or switch to an alternative technology.

Actually, going through NPR’s list of what the energy bill does, there isn’t much I like.

For biofuels, the conern is not just the environment but energy security as well. But if we want to diversify our energy sources, couldn’t we import cheap Brazilian ethanol? Why mandate a certain amount be produced here at greater expense? Energy security seems pretty bogus to me, anyway. Trade makes us secure enough.

Making “price gouging” a crime… shudder. Are hours long waits and rationing better than paying a premium to get as much gas as you want without waiting? 

I’m not necessarily against government funding for research, but isn’t automotive technology an area where research in the private sector is already well-motivated by patents?

As for the bit about carbon capture, I would expect energy companies to get on that once a cap and trade scheme is in place, if it is cost-effective.