Consumers don't have to wait for any kind of consensus between Republicans and Democrats, or fossil fuel advocates and environmentalists, to help the United States move toward energy independence.
“Consumers can make a big difference through their use of more efficient vehicles, alternative fuel vehicles, improving the energy efficiency of their homes and switching to green power, which many utilities now offer,” said clean energy consultant Alan Nogee.
While conservation efforts can cut costs for individual consumers, the collective savings can be much greater.
If each of the nearly 194 million licensed drivers in the United States cut back on fuel consumption, fewer oil imports would be needed. When consumers use less electricity, utility companies will need to build fewer power plants.
Nogee said everyone will benefit if utility companies switch to renewable energy sources in the future, with wind, solar and other resources poised to provide more of the country's electricity needs.
“The vast majority of Americans support renewable energy, but still have a long way to go to appreciate the full potential that renewable energy can play,” he said.
Economist Steve Agee, dean of Oklahoma City University's Meinders School of Business, said self interest is usually the biggest motivating factor for someone to decide whether to trim their use of fossil fuel.
“When prices get high for energy like gasoline or diesel or natural gas, we react to that. We either use less of it or we switch to some other form of transportation or we moderate our behavior. People typically do that whenever they need to,” Agee said. “The biggest factor that can affect our energy supply and demand situation in the United States is efficiency.
“More than anything else, if we can improve efficiency, we can become energy independent. If we individually and then collectively watched our consumption of energy and made ourselves more energy efficient, we could do that.”
Oklahoma City financial planner Troy Jones said he is advising clients to invest in energy-saving measures because low interest rates are making it difficult for them to save money in more traditional ways.
“The return on your investment far exceeds anything you could get otherwise,” Jones said.
Jones said cutting energy costs doesn't have to be an expensive proposition.
“There's some very inexpensive things that just about anybody can do,” he said.
Jones said the economics for renewable energy options such as solar only get better with higher petroleum prices.
He got a $56,000 bid in November to equip a 2,500-square-foot building he owns with enough solar panels to provide three-quarters of its electricity needs. The price now has dropped to $36,000 because of lower equipment costs.
With available tax credits and deductions, Jones figures he can recover the cost of installing those solar panels in about three and a half years. After that, the money he saves on utility bills turns into income.
“That's a home run,” he said.
The only question that remains for Jones is how many solar panels to install.
He said solar is an option for his home, commercial building and a rental property where he pays the utilities.
“I'm just trying to figure out where I'm going to stop,” Jones said.
Nogee said one of the biggest advantages of renewable resources is that they are manufactured technologies, which can come down in cost as industries learn to do things more efficiently.
“That is why they have become increasingly competitive and will continue to do so, particularly if they continue to receive government support,” he said.
ADAM WILMOTH, ENERGY EDITOR
How you can cut costs
• Unplug appliances that are not being used
• Take advantage of your computer's energy savings features
• Control the temperature
• Use appliances wisely
• Turn off lights when you leave a room
• Insulate windows and doors against air leaks
• Install compact fluorescent bulbs
• Conserve water heat with a water heater blanket
• Change your heating and cooling filters as needed
• Install low-flow plumbing fixtures
Source: Public Service Co.of Oklahoma