Despite gulf crisis, energy efficiency remains a tough sell for industry

March 31, 1991|By Matthew L. Wald | Matthew L. Wald,New York Times News Service

PHILADELPHIA -- More than a month after the war in the oi fields, business ventures trying to sell products to keep U.S. houses, offices and shops comfortably heated while using less fuel are finding that efficiency is still a tough sell.

Not only can they not get retailers to carry their insulation, high-efficiency light bulbs and other energy-conserving products, they are also having problems getting these products into homes, even when a third party is willing to pay for them.

The beginning of the Kuwait crisis brought a renewed flurry of interest in insulating attics and sealing up cracks, but the swift end of the military action is "potentially a setback for efficiency," Liz Robinson said at a recent conference here of building experts from around the country.

She is executive director of the Energy Coordinating Agency, a volunteer group here that helps poor people keep warm in their homes.

"If the war had been prolonged," she added, "the lesson would have hit home."

Ms. Robinson's assessment was shared by many of the nearly 900 experts on the use of energy in buildings, most of them government officials or representatives of non-profit agencies, attending a conference called "Affordable Comfort."

"It was a short war, prices are coming down, and people have short memories," said Anthony J. Alexandre, president of Energy Tech/Conservation Products Inc. of Middletown, Conn., one of about 30 vendors showing products at the conference.

He and others said the only driving force now is electric utilities, which are so anxious to avoid building new power plants that they are taking their customers, especially those who heat with electricity, by the hand and showing them how to do more with less.

Such efficiency is important because 36 percent of the energy consumed in this country is used to heat, cool, ventilate and light buildings, either residential or commercial, and run common appliances such as television sets, radios and computers. About 20 percent goes into houses, with a bill of about $100 billion a year.

Efficiency efforts do make a gallon of oil, a cubic foot of natural gasor a watt of electricity go further than it used to; since the first oil shock, in 1973, millions of people have caulked, insulated and installed better windows.

But in comparison to industry and transportation, the two other broad categories of energy users, progress in homes and commercial businesses has been weak.

Between 1973, the year the government started keeping detailed records, and 1989, the last year for which data are available, residential and commercial energy use rose 22.1 percent.

Energy use in transportation and industry increased only 3.7 percent. Growth in auto travel was countered by a rise in average gasoline mileage, while industries modernized with more efficient equipment. Much less, however, was done on the home front, where growth in the number of homes and service businesses was not offset by a rise in efficiency.

The lack of interest on the part of homeowners has made supplying conservation devices a difficult enterprise. In fact, several manufacturers of energy-conservation devices said they would probably have been out of business had it not been for the conservation programs sponsored by utilities or by non-profit groups formed to help the poor.

Many utilities now have conservation programs. The New England Electric System, for example, spent more than $70 million last year, or more than 4 percent of its gross receipts, on energy-efficiency programs. Utilities say the investments can save a kilowatt-hour of electricity for less money than it would cost to generate a kilowatt-hour.

Poor people are a major focus of conservation efforts, not because they use the bulk of energy -- they do not -- but because not much conservation equipment is installed in houses or apartments these days unless someone besides the resident is paying, and for the poor, outside financing is available.

Mr. Alexandre's business, Energy Tech/Conservation Products, reflects many of the difficulties his industry faces. His company provides box-like covers for attic hatches and fold-up stairs. A test by Mass Save, a non-profit group in Massachusetts that performs evaluations of energy efficiency in houses, found that the insulated, gasketed box would save 564 kilowatt-hours a heating season. Depending on the utility, that much power can cost up to $70.

Mr. Alexandre estimates that for most consumers with drafty attics, his "therma-dome" would pay for itself in less than two years. But home-supply stores will not carry the product, he said, because they do not believe that shoppers will think they are worth buying.

So he sells the product in bulk to utilities, non-profit organizations or contractors.

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