Guest Post by Thomas Fuller
There are a lot of people concerned about the pace of innovation as it relates to climate change and energy efficiency, because of fears about global warming.
Innovation has led to energy efficiency gains of between 1% and 1.5% for a very long time–perhaps as long as three centuries. For short periods within those three centuries, innovation has been even more robust.
However, every time somebody comes up with a way of saving energy, we end up finding ways to use even more energy with the money we’ve saved. This has become known as Jevon’s Paradox, and it has been discussed by economists since 1865, probably because economists weren’t interested in the invention of barbed wire.
In constructing strategies for defeating the dread global warming, the 1% – 1.5% rate of innovation is ‘baked in’ to adaptation and mitigation strategies. In some scenarios, they assume more. As Roger Pielke Jr. and his friends at the estimable Breakthrough Institute have repeatedly pointed out, it ain’t enough. To make a real difference on global warming, our energy efficiency would need to increase by between 4% and 6%, something that seems close to absurd.
But is it? Let’s talk about a subject dear to the hearts of global warming activists–tipping points. They use it to talk about points of no return for our atmosphere, something more sober scientists think is highly unlikely. But it gets them headlines.
But there are tipping points in technology, as well–witness the striking lack of horse manure on the city streets of New York and London. And the paucity of buggy whips, for that matter.
There are about 16 billion artificial lights in the world today, and about 13 billion of them get replaced every year. CFLs were supposed to change that, but everybody hates them–I think 15 billion of the world’s lightbulbs may well be CFLs stored unused in everybody’s closet.
CFLs could save 75% of the energy used for lighting. But they won’t, because they suck. (That’s a technical phrase meant to cover poor light quality, premature failure, inability to work in many settings and environments–they just suck.)
But LEDs are coming that can save 90% of the energy used for lighting, and they may work better than CFLs. (Anthony, you said you filled your house with them. How do they work?)
Stanley Jevons thought that if we saved 90% of the energy used on lighting, we would find some other use for that energy. And he might well be right. But as with other laws that have passed into obscurity, Jevons did not plan for a future that is almost within our sight, but was 150 years away from him. He couldn’t see a level of saturation that would cause energy use to plateau.
Energy use in the developed world is projected to increase by 0.3% per year through 2050. All of the growth will come in the developing world. But they will develop. They will reach the point where we are today by 2075. And regardless of whether innovation comes in strong or weak, their energy use will plateau, and then decline gently with innovation, stable population and social changes–do you know how much less energy a retired person consumes than someone in the work force? It’s a lot, and the number of retired people is going to skyrocket.
You can leave the lights on. You can buy more lights. But eventually you have enough. You can own three cars. But you can only drive one at a time. And houses will start getting smaller, not bigger, as demographic changes work through the population. And that means that eventually, innovations that improve energy efficiency will reduce energy usage. But, what are we talking about–another century? Another millenium?
How about before mid-century?
Can we achieve step change innovation in all types of energy use? That’s immediately followed by another key question–even if we can, will we?
Those who study energy use break it into several large sectors, with the largest being industrial, which consumes about half of all energy. Transportation accounts for 22%, and residential and commercial fall in between at about 30%. (Technically, the second largest use of energy worldwide is waste during generation and delivery of electricity, something that could be improved on…)
We know step change is possible for transportation. Audi had a car that got 80 miles per gallon on the market a few years ago. The U.S. fleet had an average of 22 mpg a couple years back. Ford is coming out with a model that gets 40 mpg right now. New commercial jet aircraft are at least 20% more fuel efficient than older models.
Half of all new windows sold are energy efficient, and energy efficient windows, doors and insulation could reduce waste by at least 35%. The same is true for new appliances. If we had a cash for clinkers instead of a cash for clunkers… well, you get the idea.
Industry could get a lot more mileage out of the energy it uses. In Denmark, 40% of their primary energy is delivered through combined heat and power at 85% efficiency, compared to the 35% efficiency of old fashioned power plants. In America, we get 9% of our power from CHP. (And how come nobody has thought of using the heat generated by nuclear power plants?)
There is not one thing I’ve talked about above that is not commercially available for sale today. There is not one thing above that would not save money over the long haul for the people who buy it. The average time for technology improvements to spread through a fleet of equipment is between 13 and 25 years. Certainly, if we moved on these available, off the shelf improvements now, they would be in place and reaping benefits before 2050.
People are reluctant to give up perfectly good refrigerators and cars before they are used up. Companies are reluctant to retire coal plants early, and to make capital investments in things like CHP or Waste to Energy without prodding. But we could redirect some of the subsidies we’re giving wind power companies…
Here in America we use 323 million btus per person per year. In Denmark they use 161 million btus per year. (We drive about twice as much as they do, on average, but that’s only a small part of the equation.) We could change that almost painlessly in fairly short order.
We don’t need any new toys to show Stanley Jevons is wrong. We just need to use the tools we have.