As we finish this chapter on energy and work, it is relevant to draw some distinctions between two sometimes misunderstood terms in the area of energy use. As has been mentioned elsewhere, the “law of the conservation of energy” is a very useful principle in analyzing physical processes. It is a statement that cannot be proven from basic principles, but is a very good bookkeeping device, and no exceptions have ever been found. It states that the total amount of energy in an isolated system will always remain constant. Related to this principle, but remarkably different from it, is the important philosophy of energy conservation. Conservation has to do with seeking to decrease the amount of energy used by an individual or a group through (1) reduced consumption (e.g., turning down thermostats, driving fewer kilometers) and/or (2) increasing conversion efficiencies in the performance of a particular task—such as developing and using more efficient room heaters, cars that have greater miles-per-gallon ratings, energy efficient compact fluorescent lights, energy efficient appliances, etc. Since energy in an isolated system is not destroyed or created, one might wonder why we need to be concerned about our energy resources, since energy is a conserved quantity. The problem is that the final result of most energy transformations is waste heat transfer to the environment and conversion to energy forms no longer useful for doing work. To state it in another way, the potential for energy to produce useful work has been “degraded” in the energy transformation.
A rational energy policy should encourage research by private industry and should provide funding for basic research, ensure fair access to alternative energy sources, encourage the internalization of external cost of fossil fuel energy, and promote the dissemination of information about the costs and benefits of alternative energy sources.