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Complacency hindering US' energy-saving strategies?

The United States may soon be ceding its title as global economic leader to China, but the Western nation still holds the edge in generating original, innovative ideas. That said, an air of satisfaction with the status quo has infected both individuals and organizations in the US and threatens to hinder the implementation of some of its smart strategies.

Take energy, for instance. Holding most of the world's patents in energy innovation, the US has blazed a trail in renewable energy systems, the construction of energy-efficient structures and pushing for more fuel-efficient and electric cars. But despite the proven financial, environmental and competitive advantages of energy efficiency, getting both broad grassroots and corporate buy-in for the concept in the US has been slow.

Dan Arvizu, director of the US Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, attributes an air of "complacency" to relatively low US energy prices which diminish the urgency for innovation. "Our prices make us competitive," Arvizu told China Daily on the sidelines of the 2013 Platts Global Energy Outlook Forum in Manhattan last week. "But they also make us complacent."

Even if implementing energy-efficient change is in someone's best financial interest, he said, "the perception is: 'I've got to make a compromise on how I do things to take advantage of these new technologies'".

Why aren't good ideas implemented? Arvizu was asked. "First, people need to know if it's possible," he said. If people don't know that an innovation is actually implementable, they won't pursue it. Second, he said, "they actually have to care". Using energy-efficiency as an example, he said, if people think "energy's not my problem, it's a tolerable cost", they're "not going to spend any time" with the concept.

The implications of these views are significant, according to Arvizu. The US needs to get innovative technologies into the marketplace quickly to wring the maximum benefit from the competitive edge it still holds, before China ramps up its pursuit of world energy business, luring investors with low-cost technology.

No doubt China is learning from studying the US. Arvizu said a Chinese delegation that recently visited the Research Support Facility (RSF) at the US Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Colorado came away impressed with the myriad cutting-edge energy saving ideas on display. Completed in 2011 at a cost of $103 million, the 360,000-square-foot facility operates with 1,300 staff members and an energy goal of 35 kilo British Thermal Units (or 35,000 Btu) per square foot per year.

"We have a 70-watt budget per person," Arvizu said. Whereas conventional desktop office computers alone consume some 300 watts of electricity, the RSF employees use a 15-watt monitor. "Everybody uses one centralized printer."

Throw in the building's rooftop photovoltaic system, its electrochromic windows (which manually or automatically respond to changing sunlight levels and heat conditions), and systems that advise workers when is a good time to open or close windows) and the result is a 50 percent reduction in the energy consumption of even "the most efficient" mainstream building built to code, Arvizu said.

China, clearly committed to embracing an advanced energy economy - it moved over to a clean energy policy in its latest five year plan, seems well-positioned to gain ground on the US. An increasingly fractious political debate on energy and climate issues in Washington threatens to cut back energy programs, such as state renewable energy standards and federal tax credits for wind and solar power.

Arvizu suggests the next generation in the US will be more pro-active when it comes to widespread energy-innovation adoption. Through giving talks at US colleges and universities, the director has reached the conclusion that "younger people get it", and that "my generation has to die off before we finally get attention on these matters".

The current generation could help the cause of energy efficiency and renewable energy now, he said, by implementing numerous energy strategies that don't "require compromise". But the implication is many Americans would regard taking even those modest steps as challenging their entrenched views of energy use. And for many, that would mean taking a risk. Apparently, some risk will be necessary, if the US wants to retain its competitive edge over China. 

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