Big Issues: The South's Appetite for Energy

A study was released on Monday that addresses the energy inefficiency of the American South. (Here's New York Times' Green Inc. on the subject; here's Grist.org.) From the study:

Relative to the rest of the country, the South consumes a particularly large share of industrial energy, accounting for 51 percent of the nation’s total industrial energy use. In addition, the region has a higher-than-average per capita energy consumption for each of the end-use sectors covered in this report: the South consumes 43 percent of the nation’s electric power, 40 percent of the energy consumed in residences and 38 percent of the energy used in commercial buildings.

Grist points to cheap energy as the major culprit. They argue that if energy was more expensive, people would be more aggressive about conservation.

As a longterm resident of the American Southeast (Nashville, Tennessee, for almost four years), I think that's a valid point, but this is also cultural. (Though you could argue that low energy prices have led to the rise of that culture.)

When I first moved into my second apartment—the center section of a one-story triplex in lovely East Nashville—it was March. When I went to open my windows, I couldn't. They had been painted shut. This is a normal practice in many part of the South (or at least Nashville). People don't do much window-openin'—why would you when you go straight from hear to AC? My landlord eventually came in to remedy the problem, though this precipitated another issue: unaccustomed to being open, many of the windows didn't have screens.

And don't even get me started on the air conditioning abuse going on in Southern cities. I shivered days away in my office during the summer, always making sure to keep a sweater handy. Any mall, restaurant or bar could be 60 degrees, while the temperature outside was cracking 100. Sweat, shiver, sweat, shiver. I grew up in a house without air conditioning (and made it through four years of college in Connecticut without it), so this continually flummoxed me.

Oh, and everyone drives everywhere

Cost could help—if electricity bills better reflected the value of the resource, people might begin to change their habits—but there are deeper issues at work here. The South needs to work on walkable, dense urban centers, actively encourage people to turn down the AC and figure out sustainable ways to supply all that energy.