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Monday, September 21, 2009

Energy efficiency, conservation and “sacrifice” revisited

Energy efficiency, conservation and “sacrifice” revisited

A recent article (“Leaping the Efficiency Gap”) in the August 14, 2009, edition of Science discussed the now classic argument of how far energy efficiency takes you to conserving energy. The general answer is so far, not much. The article discusses Arthur Rosenfeld starting an energy efficiency program at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the mid-1970s, and how he and many were convinced that reductions in energy consumption could be achieved by advances in technology. The article also notes how Lee Schipper of Stanford’s Precourt Energy Efficiency Center took offense at President Jimmy Carter’s 1977 ‘cardigan’ speech in saying that in order to save energy sacrifice was needed and some sacrifices would be painful. Schipper wrote a letter to a congressman arguing that conservation did not have to be painful. Schipper is then quoted as saying he was wrong and Carter was right.

After 35 years of the efficiency vs. conservation debate, I think there is much more understanding that energy in the US is still cheap and has not generally dictated decision making by businesses and citizens. Perhaps the last few years represent a turning point in that the CO2/climate argument has put a different spin on the question. But when we think of the word sacrifice, particularly in the US, are we really sacrificing to reduce our annual per capita energy consumption from the range of 350–370 GJ/person (330–350 million BTUs/person)? The world average is 75–80 GJ/person, and approximately 23% of the world’s population live in countries consuming up to 100 GJ/person/year.

Since the 1970s, the accumulation of statistics on energy and human development have allowed us to see that most human basic needs in terms of food access, health, and longevity are achieved at approximately the 100 GJ per capita level. There are of course a few exceptions to any rule, but the tendency of diminishing returns on most of the important quality of life measurements when consuming over 100 GJ/person is extremely enlightening and provides great perspective.

As a possible extreme example, I recently purchased a house that had a three-star green building rating (by the local utility), yet it has 17 recessed lighting sockets in the main room of approximately 800 square feet. Two light switches control 7 light bulbs each, so there was clearly a need to install low power-consuming light bulbs (or remove some of the light bulbs) so that 400–500 W of power are not consumed just to light half a room. When materials and energy got cheaper from efficiency gains and technological advancement, many times people just bought or installed more gadgets.

On the other hand, the per capita energy consumption of the US has remained relatively flat for the last 35 years due to many infrastructural and behavioral changes, even though total energy consumption has gone up due population increase. This same pattern holds for the electricity consumption of the state of California – a point that the Science article makes as the total electricity consumption rose similarly to the rest of the country.

It seems that most of solid energy conservation gains in the US stemmed from actual mandates and legislation, not business operations. After all, we measure economic growth based upon the flow of goods and services, not the amount of resources that we have in stock. Businesses are naturally motivated to increase efficiency of operations, including using less energy per product, so subsidizing them to do what economics should drive them toward is perhaps a bit ridiculous. Subsidizing them to actually consume less energy, measured as total energy, not energy/product, can make more sense.

Many famous entrepreneurs and politicians have stated their visions in the past, and we have achieved them. President Kennedy targeting putting a man on the moon. Bill Gates (Microsoft founder) targeting a personal computer in every home. But none of these targets have anything to do with using less, they are always for using more.

I think what we need is confidence that we can actually remove something from our homes and lives (here I’m thinking of the US), because we know that decreasing our energy consumption by 100 GJ/person/yr probably won’t affect anything fundamental in that Americans will then conserve energy at a rate that is still more than Western Europe. Granted, some things would certainly be hard to give up – I’m sitting in Texas right now where high temperatures of at least 38 °C can occur for 3 months of the year, but other regions of the world experience this as well. But do we seriously think that there isn’t the ability to decrease by 25% our per capita energy consumption? Most of the reduction would likely come in the combination of reduced travel and smaller/lighter vehicles. Telecommuting and teleconferencing exist also. Exposing people to the correct prices of energy and food will also help.

So I propose this new challenge of removal, not addition: remove 100 GJ/person from the average American footprint.

The level of ‘sacrifice’ is to be determined.


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