Monday, June 16, 2008

Energy Efficiency

[Chart trends energy "intensity" versus overall energy consumption per capita - indicating that while we have become more and more efficient in our use of energy, this increased efficiency has done nothing whatsoever to curb or reduce increases in energy consumption.]

Global warming, carbon emissions, multi-pollutant regulation, emissions trading, hybrids, renewables, efficiency and on and on. All these concepts have entered the vernacular because of the increasingly problematic question of energy.  I work in the electric energy industry - in nuclear power, specifically.  This industry is on the verge of a resurgence based primarily on the increasing demand for power coupled with the increasing concern about how we get it (i.e., the consequences to the environment of how we generate power).

One of the most common answers to the energy problem - especially among folks who are generally opposed to building new sources of power, is efficiency.  Here's a great quote:

Efficiency is a wonderful by-product of human ingenuity. It is an essential part of America's ever-evolving economy. It is part and parcel of the free-market economy working independently of government-mandated efficiency programs. It makes sense to wring more work out of each unit of energy. Energy efficiency conserves capital. It is good for the environment. It is good for rich and poor alike. Efficiency helps reduce the impact of energy price volatility and possible oil price hikes.

This is absolutely true.  And while I applaud efficiency - especially as an electrical engineer - I think it's important that we not mistake it for a panacea.  Interestingly:

When it comes to arguing the merits of energy efficiency [as a means to reduce energy consumption], [the] prime nemesis is a dead guy – William Stanley Jevons – a British economist who in 1865 determined that increased efficiency won't cut energy use, it will raise it. "It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuels is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth." And in the 142 years since Jevons put forth that thesis, now commonly known as the Jevons Paradox, he's yet to be proven wrong.

So while energy efficiency is a great and wonderful thing we should certainly invest in and pursue, representing it as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (at least as an alternative means to building new, less polluting generating plants), is disingenuous at best and downright wrong-headed at worst.

So, paradoxically,

It is only when we begin to focus on efficiency in the extraction of energy that the paradox of efficiency comes to seem less paradoxical…The better our energy-extracting technology, the cheaper the energy, and when goods get cheaper, we consume more of them. There's nothing paradoxical at all about that proposition … Small wonder, then, that efficiency increases consumption. It makes what we ultimately consume cheaper, and lower price almost always increases consumption. To curb energy consumption, you have to lower efficiency, not raise it.

The problem is, no body wants to talk about this mathematical and economic problem when they're touting energy efficiency as the panacea to cure greenhouse gas emissions without significant investment and expense.


Steve said...


Following your recommendation I purchased "The Self and its Brain" by Popper and Eccles. Am fifty pages into it and am enjoying it so far even if it is slow going at times. I like the references and allusions. Also, Popper discusses the emergence concept. That is an older idea than I had thought and am fascinated by it and what it makes possible.


Jeff said...

Steve -

It is a tough read for sure! And it's really tough once you get to Eccles' portion (I mean, I *really* like physics, but, wow!).

Nonetheless, I found it worthwhile in terms of the concepts it defends and justifies. I believe that it stands firm in its ideas even with all the advances in neuroscience since the book's publication.