Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Energy Miracles and Energy Efficiency

In his NYT column "In Search of Energy Miracles," Justin Gillis writes:
"Many environmentalists believe that wind and solar power can be scaled to meet the rising demand, especially if coupled with aggressive efforts to cut waste."
and, of course, that's the canonical view.

But the other night I listed to an interesting podcast(*) interviewing David Owen, author of The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse.

He's writing about Jevon's Paradox: "technological progress that increases the efficiency with which a resource is used tends to increase (rather than decrease) the rate of consumption of that resource."

Owen stated it in a way that makes it obvious: paraphrasing, the entire history of civilization has been a quest to use energy more efficiently, yet we're using more of it than ever. So why do we think still more energy efficiency will reduce energy consumption?

It's not an easy question, but the answer isn't obvious either. If you look at a plot of energy use vs national well-being, as proxied by the Human Development Index, you find this:

Higher energy consumption greatly improves life, but only up to a point (about where Italy is right now). After that the returns are very slight.

And, in fact, U.S. per capita energy use peaked in 1979, at 12.1 kW/person. It's now (annualized) 10.1 kW/person, a decline of 17%, and is still falling:

Total (annualized) U.S. energy use peaked in Dec 2007 at 3.39 terawatts, and is now at 3.18 TW, but as population increases that will probably increase too.

The World total is going to do nothing but go up, and if the US energy path is any guide it may peak at roughly 100 TW, a six-fold increase from today's ~17 TW.

Energy efficiency isn't going to do much except enable us to swim in place, at best.

(*) The podcasts at EconTalk.org are very interesting, and not limited to just economic topics. I found it after reading Paper Promises: Debt, Money, and the New World Order by Phillip Coggan, a book about global money and debt. (It made me realize that the feedbacks in the economic system put climate system feedbacks to shame.) The host of EconTalk, Russ Roberts, is a Hayekian, but an honest one -- he asks as many hard questions of his right-leaning guests (and of himself) as he does of the liberal guests. Every podcast I've tried is a good hour of intelligent conversation by intelligent people taking the time to explore compelling and important topics, while realizing how little they know but how interesting it all is.

I recommend it (and Coogan's book, too).


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Alan said...

Are you confusing total ENERGY use per capita with total ELECTRICITY use per capita? 10,000 kwh/yr is nowhere near enough to represent total energy per capita in the US.

David Appell said...

Alan: No. US energy consumption per capita is about 10,200 Watts.

Data here:

Alan said...

You show me your math I'll show you mine. Pointing to the entire MER is a bit odd. How/where do you come across a figure that expresses total energy in watts?

Watts are a unit of power, not energy. A 100 watt light bulb draws 100 watts. Over an hour it uses 100 watt hours, or 1/10 of a kilowatt hour. Kilowatthours are units of energy, as are megawatthours, terawatthours, etc.
The US consumed about 3,695 billion kilowatthours of electrical energy alone in the US in 2012, which is 11,770 thousand (kilo) watthours per capita.
If you reduced that back to a power term (divide by 8764 hours per year), yielding 1,343 watts year-round of power per capita.

David Appell said...

A certain amount of energy used over a certain amount of time (here, 1 year) can be expressed as an average with units of power (Watts).

David Appell said...

My post is about total energy consumption, not just electricity consumption.