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JOHN E. SUNUNU

What energy problem?

Doom-and-gloom activists have missed the real solution: tech innovation

andrew saeger for the boston globe

Whoever coined the phrase “everyone loves a good mystery” was wrong. What people really love is a good mystery story, with an exciting plot and — more important — a tidy resolution where everything becomes clear. It’s a formula that Edgar Allan Poe invented, Arthur Conan Doyle perfected, and Agatha Christie employed to make millions. By comparison, a mystery without resolution can be frustrating. And a mystery whose conclusion contradicts the spirit of the narrative can be downright annoying.

That’s the problem with the tale of electricity in the United States. Consumption is falling, no one saw this coming, and it contradicts the gloom-and-doom narrative that so many environmental activists use to raise money. As a result, it’s barely getting any attention. When the Associated Press published a year-end story on the dramatic trend, it appeared in this newspaper on page B6.

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Yet the facts are striking. Since 2007, total electricity consumption in the United States has fallen by over 100,000 megawatt hours. Consumption on a per-person basis is down even more dramatically, reaching levels not seen since 2001. In an age of ubiquitous handheld devices and laptops, that appears counterintuitive. Surprisingly, those devices are helping to fuel the decline.

Laptops use less electricity than desktops; tablets use less than laptops; smartphones use less than tablets. As smaller devices displace their clunkier brethren, we use less power even as we spend more time online. Often unwittingly, consumers are applying enormous pressure for greater efficiency: As they demand longer and longer battery life, manufacturers must find ever-more clever ways to minimize power consumption. According to the Electric Power Research Institute, today’s iPad consumes less than 5 percent of the electricity used by a desktop computer.

In other parts of the home, traditional electricity hogs like televisions have turned over a new leaf. Today’s flat-screen models use 80 percent less energy than the monster cathode-ray sets from my childhood. That’s primarily the work of the humble light emitting diodes — low-power units that are fast becoming the light source of choice for everything from stadium jumbotrons to car headlights.

It’s noteworthy that the lion’s share of this transformation has occurred without government intervention. Computers, TVs, and industrial lighting are generally free from regulation. Consumers have been helped by energy-efficiency labels on appliances, but as electricity prices continue to rise, companies see this less as a federal imperative than as a competitive necessity.

Nor has the government been especially adept at noticing, let alone understanding, the trend. After years of erroneously forecasting usage growth, the Energy Department has at last projected a drop in household electricity consumption for 2014. The agency still maintains, however, that total consumption will increase once industrial and commercial uses are included. We’ll see. It’s difficult to argue that three years of declines were simply an anomaly when Canada and the United Kingdom have seen the same pattern.

The laws of supply and demand remain as powerful as ever. Ultimately, lower demand should help counter electricity rates that are skyrocketing because of high-priced renewable energy projects. Like the shale gas revolution rocking US energy markets, it’s a technological phenomenon that’s good for consumers, good for industry, and good for the environment.

Unfortunately, this news undermines the Malthusian narrative that the only path to salvation involves carbon taxes, renewable energy mandates, and a government that decides what kind of light bulbs you can buy. Environmentalists on the left raise lots of cash off the claim that current energy consumption trends are unsustainable and we’re running out of everything. Lower electricity consumption could really hurt their business model.

Innovation has given consumers better, faster, and more nimble electronic products. In a highly competitive marketplace, that same innovation has delivered greater efficiency and productivity as well. As always, activists and government officials would love to claim that their prescription of regulation and intervention is essential to save the world, when in fact their best course of action might be to get out of the way. Why, for example, can’t they make it easier to import cheap surplus hydroelectricity from Canada?

That remains a mystery, but perhaps not for long. As the public becomes more aware that the sky isn’t falling, the appetite for exotic solutions and hypothetical energy sources will decline even faster than electricity consumption. That conclusion may not be as entertaining as a Sherlock Holmes story. But, as the detective would appreciate, it is at least built on common sense.

John E. Sununu, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, writes regularly for the Globe.
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