other energy sources are defined in terms of the economic cost of recovering them from their physical surroundings. The energy of political debates—of “energy policy” and the “energy crisis”—is not the physicists’ energy but rather a socially defined entity.1
This fact is crucial for making effective energy policy, for there is no single socially shared concept of energy. And each concept of energy has different implications for the way a society produces, controls, allocates, and uses energy. Fundamental lack of agreement about the definition of energy underlies many conflicts and policy shifts on particular energy issues. Furthermore, the dominance in most policy analysis of one view of energy—as a commodity—helps explain a pattern of conflict in recent debates about energy policy and the failure of the political system to seriously consider certain otherwise plausible energy-related alternatives. Explicit recognition of conflict over the very concept and definition of energy can be a step in clarifying issues and leading to more productive policy debates.
At least four quite different views of energy are widely held in U.S. society, and each contains some truth (see Table 1).2 First, energy is often seen as a commodity or, more accurately, a collection of commodities. Energy means electricity, coal, oil, and natural gas. (To a physicist, electricity is the only energy form on this list; the others are substances that contain chemical potential energy that can be converted to thermal energy when they are burned.) When people talk about “U.S. energy supplies” or “projected energy demand,” they are usually talking about this list of tradeable goods. Commodity energy consists of energy forms or energy sources that can be developed and sold to consumers. And energy is a commodity in a real sense because the society treats it that way: a significant portion of the U.S. economy has been built on trade in fuels and electricity.
The view of energy as a commodity reflects a certain set of values and beliefs; acting on this view tends to move particular interests to the center of attention. The commodity view emphasizes the value of choice for present-day consumers and producers. It assumes that such choice will allocate energy (and other commodities) effectively and efficiently. It also assumes that when prices rise, fuel substitutes will be found and that inequities that arise can be handled by ad hoc modifications to the system. It focuses analysis on the transaction between buyer and seller and away from other aspects of energy use that are external to the transaction. The interests of energy producers, along with those of consumers who have sufficient resources to participate in energy markets, take center stage. The effects of energy use on environmental values, social equity, occupational and public health, the international balance of payments, and the like are