WASHINGTON — Scientists at the country's national laboratories have projected enormous energy savings if the government takes aggressive steps to encourage energy conservation in homes, factories, offices, appliances, cars and power plants.
Their studies, completed just before the Bush administration took office, are at odds with the administration's repeated assertions in recent weeks that the nation needs to build a big new power plant every week for the next 20 years to keep up with the demand for electricity, and that big increases in production of coal and natural gas are needed to fuel those plants.
A lengthy and detailed report based on three years of work by five national laboratories said that a government-led efficiency program emphasizing research and incentives to adopt new technologies could reduce the growth in electricity demand by 20 percent to 47 percent.
President Bush's fiscal 2002 budget slashed the DOE's spending on researching and developing energy-efficient buildings and factories, more fuel-efficient automobiles, new appliance standards and more efficient lighting. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said some of that work was better left to the private sector.
That would be the equivalent of between 265 and 610 big 300-megawatt power plants, a steep reduction from the 1,300 new plants that the administration predicts will be needed. The range depends on how aggressively the government encourages efficiency in buildings, factories and appliances, as well as on the price of energy, which affects whether new technologies are economically attractive.
Another laboratory study found that government office buildings could cut their own use of power by one-fifth at no net cost to the taxpayers by adopting widespread energy conservation measures, paying for the estimated $5 billion investment with the energy savings.
But the Bush administration, which is in the final stages of preparing a strategy to deal with what it calls an energy crisis, has not publicized these findings, relying instead primarily on advice from economists at the Energy Department's Energy Information Agency, who often take a skeptical view of projected efficiency gains and predict a much greater need for fossil fuel supplies.
Administration officials said that some of the national laboratories' studies were based on theoretical assumptions that do not translate well into policy.
"We are looking for practical solutions here," said Jeanne Lopatto, a spokeswoman for the Energy Department. "Whatever works, we're interested in. But some of these ideas have been funded over many years and they have a very small impact on energy needs."
The once obscure debate between scientists at the national laboratories and economists at the information agency, both sides working for the Department of Energy, reflects a raging dispute between President Bush and many Democrats and environmentalists. While both sides agree that the United States faces energy problems, Mr. Bush's team has emphasized the quest for new supplies, while his critics emphasize untapped potential to reduce demand.
Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking publicly last week on the energy plan he is in charge of drafting, used the information agency's projections when he said that the nation would need at least 1,300 new power plants by 2020. Mr. Cheney used the figure to dramatize the need to mobilize public and private resources to close a supply gap.
Mr. Cheney has not publicly noted that other Energy Department studies show ways to trim that number. The conservation measures that the scientists consider feasible would save future energy costs and prevent air pollution from hundreds of power plants.
The laboratories' estimates assume widespread application of some time-tested efficiency standards and the success of some newer inventions that scientists love but many bottom-line economists tend to distrust as expensive or unrealistic.
Their work was reviewed by outside experts from industry, government and universities.
Some of the proposed conservation steps are neither costly nor complex. Just this week, researchers at the Energy Department's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory announced that they had developed a fluorescent table lamp that reduces the need for overhead lighting. The laboratory says the lamp matches the combined output of a 300-watt halogen lamp and a 150-watt bulb, but uses a quarter of the energy.
"Widespread use of this lighting system in offices and homes could greatly reduce the current power problems we have in California," said Michael Siminovitch, a scientist at the laboratory.
Other technologies have been proved in field tests. At Fort Polk, an Army base in Louisiana, electricity use during peak hours fell by 43 percent after base managers installed fluorescent lights, low-flow shower heads, new attic insulation and new home heating and cooling systems.
Most of the savings came from installing geothermal heat pumps, an efficient home heating and cooling system that circulates fluids through underground coils but otherwise uses conventional technologies. Hundreds of homes on the base were equipped with the systems, generating immediate cost savings for electricity and totally eliminating the homes' use of natural gas for water heating. The entire installation cost was covered by a private contractor that makes a profit by sharing in the government's cost savings for the first 20 years.
The heat pumps, though still something of a novelty, are completely proven and save so much money that President Bush installed a system at his new ranch home in Crawford, Tex., Mr. Cheney's official home, the Naval Observatory in Washington, also uses geothermal heat pumps to cut down on its energy bill.
A study prepared by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory last year contended that striving to make such savings often made sound economic sense.
The study found that the federal government, the largest energy user in the United States with some 500,000 buildings, could reduce its own energy consumption by one- fifth. The investment necessary to realize those gains would be $5.2 billion, the study said, but the energy savings would knock nearly $1 billion annually off the government's energy bill, an attractive rate of return.
Some private companies have already made significant advances in what are known as combined heat and generation plants, which could become industry standards, energy department experts say. Chevron has estimated that it saved $100 million a year after it withdrew a refinery from the Texas electricity grid and relied on an on-site generator, which allowed it to recycle waste heat from the generation process for refining.
New efficiency standards for clothes washers, water heaters and air-conditioners adopted by the Clinton administration were projected by the Clinton Energy Department to reduce electricity demand by the equivalent of 170 300-megawatt power plants over 20 years if fully enforced.
President Bush's fiscal 2002 budget slashed the department's spending on researching and developing energy-efficient buildings and factories, more fuel-efficient automobiles, new appliance standards and more efficient lighting. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said some of that work was better left to the private sector.
Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney, both former oil industry executives, seem to have assigned a tertiary role to efficiency improvements, behind new drilling for oil and gas and new construction of energy infrastructure, like pipelines and power plants. Neither the president nor the vice president has promoted his own energy-saving home as a model.
In fact, Mr. Cheney said last week, "Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy."
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company