It's not hard to understand why energy officials and environmentalists have gotten a little testy over the barrage of media attention they've received following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent turmoil in the world's oil markets.
"It's not as if we've been sitting around and this was our signal to start working," grumbled Don Milsten, director of the Maryland Energy Office. "We've been doing our job all along."
But America, and in particular its business community, has not.
Energy officials say they have had a tough time convincing businesses that energy conservation makes sense. Many companies complain that they would have to devote scarce time to learn about conservation when fuel costs are often a comparatively small part of total operating budgets.
But the current crisis in the Mideast has underscored the fact that cheap oil will someday run out and businesses are going to have to learn to conserve sooner or later.
In the business world, this doesn't mean workers have to wear more sweaters to the office and turn off their computers every time they take a break. In these days of technological wizardry, conservation comes down to energy-efficient buildings more than anything else -- and that means using things like fluorescent lights, thermal storage units and solar receptors.
It can also mean much more.
A new passenger terminal at the Albany County Airport in New York uses a microcomputer, programmed with the solar altitude and azimuth angles through 2000, that constantly gauges the outdoor and indoor environment to adjust the overhead louvers to the most energy-efficient position. When natural light is available, automatic controls dim the fluorescent lights.
Surprisingly, it is the building sector, not transportation, that accounts for the largest share of energy consumption in the U.S. economy -- 40 percent. Of the nation's $150 billion electric bill, buildings consume 75 percent, according to energy researchers Arthur H. Rosenfeld and David Hafemeister.
Officials at Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. say that only 10 percent of their 1 million customers are industrial and commercial users but that they account for 50 percent of the utility's energy consumption.
Remarkably, engineers say it costs no more to construct an energy-efficient building than it does to build an inefficient one. By reducing the size of air conditioning units, eliminating single-glazed windows and excess lighting, one can finance the installation of insulation, double-glazed windows, automated thermostats and lighting controls.
"My feeling is that there are a lot of people out there who want to make sure their building is as energy-efficient as possible and not have to depend on oil," said Mr. Milsten of the Maryland Energy Office. "If they're serious about this, then they ought to at least have some solar collectors on the roof and look into the feasibility of natural gas for company vehicles."
Several energy conservation officials said making the conservation pitch to local property owners and office management officials has historically been tough. There is a traditional view that looks on energy-saving devices with suspicion and demands a quick payback if any energy conservation investment is made.
"A lot of these people understand bricks and mortar -- they understand boilers and air conditioning," said Robert Kleinman, president of Baltimore's Energy Management Services, a consulting and engineering company specializing in energy conservation. "They have a lot of trouble with energy management systems because it's somewhat of an esoteric term," he added. "You can't really see it working so it runs against their idea of bricks and mortar."
An energy management system (EMS) is a computerized technology that automatically controls what is turned on and off according to any number of variables, such as time of day and tenants' needs.
A computerized EMS is not for every business, but every business ought to consider some energy conservation plan, experts say, and the Persian Gulf crisis and talk of a national energy conservation plan may be just the push the business world needs.
Instead of employing a full-time building supervisor who is responsible for checking on things like lighting, heating and air conditioning in dozens of offices, computer programs are commonly available that will monitor these comfort levels and make programmed changes immediately.
Energy officials and building engineers usually begin with the simplest advice: If you're not using it, turn it off. There is no other way to cut energy costs as dramatically.
If your employees tend to forget to turn off lights when they leave an empty room, you can invest in some "occupancy sensors" that shut lights off automatically. Some advice that applies to homeowners works as well for business owners: weatherstrip doors and windows, stress that drivers must obey the speed limit, increase insulation.