Can energy conservation spur economic growth?

It’s no surprise that the number one concern among Southeastern Wisconsin residents is job creation, but energy costs and conservation also matter among respondents to a recent Public Policy Forum survey.

The concern about energy and conservation is great enough that our fellow citizens would be willing to pay more for fuel-efficient cars, appliances and homes and even support tax incentives to conserve energy and reduce our dependence  on non-renewable resources.

The telephone survey, conducted the week following the Nov. 2010 elections, covered  the four-county Milwaukee Metropolitan area. Most of the respondents were higher income, white, college-educated and not Milwaukee residents. However, the Public Policy Forum of Milwaukee said the results were weighted to better reflect those shortfalls without significantly changing the results

Despite the survey’s results, it also showed that we in Wisconsin are less worried about global warming than our fellow citizens in other parts of the nation.

What this means is that, by and large, the broad picture of global warming or climate change is not quite as important for us , but when energy costs and usage are presented to our neighbors at the micro-economic level, the concern and action to save spikes. When the bills come showing increased costs to heat our homes, run our computers or fuel our cars, people are more inclined to buy efficient appliances and light bulbs, turn down the heat or air conditioning, and find alternatives to the daily commute.

But energy efficiency solutions vary according to income levels and place of residence. Poorer respondents and those living in the city of Milwaukee were more likely to use public transit and less likely to purchase energy efficient appliances or light bulbs.

Not surprisingly, people are supportive of tax or purchasing incentives to reduce energy consumption. People are also supportive of nuclear energy and the construction of more transmission lines to make use of renewable energy. But very few want to reduce the speed limit to conserve gas consumption or support punitive surcharges on excess energy usage

So, we accept the idea of alternative renewable energy, we will make some changes to our lifestyle to reduce and conserve, but we will only go so far. And what exactly should we be using as alternative sources – wind, solar, nuclear, hydro?

The Midwest since is not blessed with wind resources like South Dakota or extensive sunlight as in the southwest. As such, John Bobrowich, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Energy Research Consortium, would like to explore the use of biodigesters, which convert natural waste into nutrient-rich fertilizers and biogas to generate energy.

“Twenty percent of (natural) gas in Germany is derived from biodigesters,” he said, adding that Wisconsin has plenty of raw material to harvest from dairy farms across the state. Bobrowich also advocated that the state invest in hydro-kinetic power and biomass sources, as opposed to erecting turbines or installing solar panels.

“What is good here may not work somewhere else. We need to do what we’re good at,” he said.

Roman Draba, a vice-president at WE Energies, said while Wisconsinites are concerned about conservation, a collision occurs when it comes to cost.

“We can’t push too hard on technology that isn’t there or just doesn’t fit in Wisconsin,” he said.

He added that government and business leaders need to show a connection between conservation and renewable benefits, which would prove “green is good business.”

So should we give up on trying to convert to more renewable fuel sources and continue our reliance on coal and oil? No. But it is worth noting that not everyone can afford to embrace energy-efficient practices, or will want to.

What we need to do is listen to the results of polls and people who work with energy everyday.  We need to use tax incentives to encourage citizens and businesses to adopt conservation practices. It has been proven to work – look at the success of federal tax credits to purchase energy efficient furnaces and windows during the last two years (On a personal note, I can’t wait to get my $1,500 tax credit for buying a more efficient furnace).

Government officials need to make the production of energy efficient technologies, such as those produced at Ingeteam and Johnson Controls,more attractive within our state. We need to look to sustainable sources that are readily available here, while putting aside alternatives that work better elsewhere.  This type of energy policy will create jobs and increase our tax base.

Energy efficiency is important, and so is getting unemployed Wisconsinites back to work. If done right, energy conservation can be a win-win for everyone.

Cover photo courtesy Flickr Creative Commons, by chascar.


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