Have you ever heard of the Energy Efficiency Paradox?
The Green People who are always pushing greater energy efficiency as a way to reduce energy consumption and “save the planet” never seem to get around to this part of the problem. Theirs is an intuitive argument that seems sound, but it’s actually just another faulty conclusion based on an unsound premise.
This is because the energy efficiency argument ignores the Energy Efficiency Paradox or EEP – a sound premise very well known among oil, coal, gas and nuclear industry folks. They actually use EEP in advanced math formulas that project future business with considerable accuracy. First postulated by the British economist Jevons 150 years ago, it’s been applied to business models and government planning ever since.
It’s a solid Law Of Human Nature, which, naturally, seems to defy simple logic. With privileged Americans it’s almost flawless.
Greater Energy Efficiency = Greater Energy Consumption
The two are almost directly proportional. It says that the more efficient the devices that use energy become, the more the devices are used. The end result is a greater consumption of energy than before the efficiency of the devices increased. In other words, energy consumption increases with energy efficiency.
It has to do with the consumer’s perceived expenses. If our toys use less electricity, we think we can use them more with less cost. Of course, this paradox also helps drive increased economic growth (which also, incidentally, increases energy consumption).
So, the more efficient the toys get, the more energy their users consume.
American homes are 31% more energy-efficient than they were in 1970. But because newly built houses are 60% larger than homes built four decades ago, there’s been no change in overall energy use per house, canceling out any savings from efficiency.
And, yes, just as with all those billions of hand-held communication toys that have replaced the telephone, it works with cars, too, including, of course, electric cars – and the businesses that make, distribute, sell and service them. Furthermore, as our society has seen a dramatic decline in heavy manufacturing along with a dramatic rise in the service sector, the increase in commercial use of energy has more than off-set the decrease in industrial use. Worse, the transportation sector, which includes railroads and railways, remains a comparatively insignificant consumer of energy, while residential use now accounts for the largest share of our energy consumption. (See Footnote #1.)
So, while increased energy efficiency is indeed a worthwhile goal (it can also increase the standard of living), it will not reduce energy consumption and may even have the opposite effect. Furthermore, some of our energy “solutions” may not be nearly as ideal as we may wish to believe. Adding ethanol to gasoline, for example, requires the extra expense of government subsidies plus the burning of food for fuel in a world where many tens of millions are rising out of poverty and demanding better nutrition for themselves and their families. Also, electric cars may not be burning gasoline, but the burning of fossil fuels is required to generate the electricity they require to charge the batteries – batteries that add weight which increases the energy required to move the cars. Both of these approaches may seem to be more efficient, but they will not in themselves reduce energy consumption and may even drive it up (along with other adverse effects).
The energy equation needs a negative force to off-set the paradox, something significant enough to reverse the inclination of natural human behavior. Unfortunately, the only thing that will slow down the energy wasted in this country is m-o-n-e-y, i.e., artificially raised cost. Such increased cost would be very difficult but more palatable, however, if the consumer was ensured that the extra money would be dedicated solely to a specific worthwhile objective in the same problem area – as defined by law and overseen by a small agency charged with ensuring that waste, fraud, mismanagement, redirection of funds, etc., does not occur (as is usually the case with existing fuel taxes). The objective must be a clear long range solution to an energy projection that is simply unsustainable.
This means (1) at least a 100% phased-in tax on all forms of refined fuel and electricity, coupled with (2) a complete ban on new highway development in exchange for using the tax proceeds to construct a national high speed rail system to match the Interstate Highway System built by the Greatest Generation, plus secondary development of alternative energy sources. (A portion of the tax proceeds would be set aside for fuel subsidies for the poor.)
The cost of rail travel must be competitive with short flight air travel, without subsidies – which becomes increasingly possible with the steady rise in the price of fossil fuels. Rail transport is far more cost effective than any other means of transportation, but currently there are only two high speed rail systems that operate without government subsidies – Paris-Lyons and Osaka-Tokyo. But this will change with the increasing cost of other forms of travel. Anyone who has lived in Europe or Japan understands the great advantage and beauty of extremely well planned, managed and operated rail systems. Unfortunately, in the US much of the huge network of right-of-ways once owned by the railroads has been sold or turned over to local governments who quickly converted them to other uses. Just buying new right-of-ways through heavily populated areas now would be cost prohibitive. So the best approach would be to use the space above the interstate highway system right-of-ways for high speed elevated electric rail systems. A good start for such a national structure could be made by linking cities from Seattle to San Diego along the Pacific coast and inside the northeastern triangle from Chicago to Boston to Washington. (See Footnote #2.)
In an infrastructure building frenzy reminiscent of our own Greatest Generation, Chinese work crews of as many as 100,000 people per line have built about half their 10,000-mile high-speed rail network in just six years, in many cases ahead of schedule. Just as building the interstate highway system a half-century ago made modern, national commerce more feasible in the United States, China’s ambitious 220-mile-per-hour rail system is helping integrate the economy of the sprawling, populous nation — on a much faster construction timetable and at significantly higher travel speeds than anything envisioned during the American 1950s. Also, a shift in passenger traffic to the new high-speed rail routes is freeing up congested older rail lines for freight. That, plus the construction of additional freight lines, has allowed miners and shippers to switch to cheaper rail transport from costly trucks for heavy cargos. The 820-mile Beijing-to-Shanghai line will take considerably less than five hours to cover a distance comparable to New York to Atlanta — which requires nearly 18 hours on Amtrak’s fastest train. The Chinese trains, which typically carry 600 passengers, often sell out despite departures every 10 or 15 minutes, and despite fares higher than the slower lines. (Flight time for the high volume NYC-ATL route is about three hours, plus at least another 1.5 hours for check-in, security screening, baggage retrieval, etc.. The four-plus hour airline hassle costs about $220 plus the extras. High speed rail could charge the same fare and still beat air passenger volume.)
It’s another of those major questions wrapped up in whether or not we want to leave a viable society for our children and grandchildren. At least the cost of this approach would remain inside the US and not be shipped overseas. If our society can’t accomplish either of these, or is incapable of developing other viable choices, then it has no option except to drive up the cost of energy, including oil, gas and nuclear – at the source. Any realistic and responsible approach to the nation’s energy challenges must incorporate all avenues, including increased efficiency, slower demand growth, alternative source development, plus lifestyle changes – all without doing great sudden damage to the economy. Still, as with the Greatest Generation, the focus needs to be on tomorrow, not on today.
The United States has had forty years to address this very well-known problem, but has continued to march ineptly on “thinking” done by our ancestors for an entirely different world, lamenting every step along the way, year after year, our “dependence on foreign oil” – as shiploads of American wealth continued to flow overseas. Now that popular revolutions are beginning to alter the status quo dictatorships across the oil-rich Muslim world, one of the significant casualties in the years ahead will be extremely sophisticated oil management regimes under OPEC, regimes staffed with people who attended western universities and fully understand the critical role played by oil and gas in the global economy, to global stability and growth, and at what tolerable costs – all to the advantage of the dictatorships.
Those who take over from the dictatorships, deprived for generations of an equitable share in the spoils of oil, will hardly be more concerned about the global economy than they will be about improving their own lot first. Included in their interests will be raising their own standard of living comparable to that currently taking place in China, India, Brazil, eastern Europe – which will inevitably place further strains on finite fossil fuels (and food). It is entirely predictable that great turmoil will surround all aspects of carbon-based oil and gas energy resources for the foreseeable future. Per gallon prices for gasoline approaching $6.00 are entirely conceivable. Added to that prospect is the adverse effects resulting from the recent massive earthquake that dangerously damaged nuclear reactors in Japan – shocking damage that has dramatically impacted further nuclear development, in its current form, all around the world.
This country faces extreme unpredictability with energy for at least the next twenty years, unpredictability that will dramatically affect our entire economy. This prospect will, one way or another, for the first time, upset the Energy Efficiency Paradox.
Sooner or later wishful thinking runs up against hard reality, and staid conclusions are seen to be based on premises that have evaporated. How we deal with the future energy turmoil will severely test us as a society. As women have assumed the role as dominant political and social force in American society, one can only wonder how they will approach such challenges, if they will be more concerned about the future than were their parents, or whether they will simply follow the same forty year long example of just kicking the can down the road for their children – to when solutions become impossible.
Memo To Congress From Soldier: Stop wasting taxpayer money on useless and incredibly ostentatious $15 billion aircraft carriers and start building 21st century American trains.
(See also “From The North Pole To Moon Rocks, And Back”, posted separately.)
(Of course, energy is not the only use of oil. Crude oil has to be refined
to make it useful to mankind, and the refining processes can be incredibly
complex. Only about half of each barrel of oil is used to make gasoline.
Another 15% is used to produce diesel (6%) and aviation (9%) fuel and a
wide range of lubricants. The remaining 35% is used to make everything from
propane gas to plastics to a really huge variety of products from nylon to
lipstick to asphalt to baby oil to aspirin to suntan lotion. Nothing in a
barrel of crude goes to waste – until it becomes an integral part of some other
product useful to mankind. Still, the US has not built a new refinery since 1974 – about the same time that it stopped building new nuclear reactors.)
Footnote #1. Electricity As A Portion Of Energy Consumption.
Efficiency in almost all devices that consume energy has increased over the past thirty years, but still energy consumption in the US has risen at a rate greater than can be attributed to population growth alone. (Total energy consumption is made up of a wide range of uses, such as vehicle fuel, electricity generation, heating, cooling, manufacturing, commercial, transportation, residential, construction, mineral extraction, etc..) The following breaks the thirty years from 1975 to 2005 into two 15-year periods.
US Population: (average annual increase is about 1%, mostly through immigration)
1990 249,438,712 +33,465,513 (15.5%)
2005 288,373,137 +38,934,425 (15.6%)
US Energy Consumption (Quadrillion Btu):
1975 Fossil Fuel 65.357 (90.8%) Nuclear 1.900 (2.6%) Renewable 4.723 (6.6%) Total 72.001
1990 Fossil Fuel 72.332 (85.4%) Nuclear 6.104 (7.2%) Renewable 6.202 (7.3%) Total 84.651 +12.65 (17.6%)
2005 Fossil Fuel 85.790 (85.4%) Nuclear 8.161 (8.2%) Renewable 6.406 (6.4%) Total 100.442 +15.79 (18.7%)
Electricity generated by nuclear power plants had a significant increase between 1975 and 1990, but has remained relatively flat ever since, with most increases coming from greater efficiencies in existing plants. The only reactor currently under construction in America, in Tennessee, was begun in 1973 and may be completed in 2012. Of the 104 reactors now operating in the US, ground was broken on all of them in 1974 or earlier. Following the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, more than 120 reactor orders were ultimately cancelled, and the construction of new reactors ground to a halt. Of all 132 US nuclear plants built (52% of the 253 originally ordered), one-fifth were permanently and prematurely closed due to reliability or cost problems. (The Three Mile Island accident was the most serious in US commercial nuclear power plant history, even though emergency procedures at the time of the mishap worked as they were intended to work and even though the accident led to no deaths or injuries to plant workers or members of the nearby community.)
Most renewable energy is electricity generated by flowing water rotating turbines at dams. Other types of renewable energy generation – such as solar and wind – will never be able to make serious in-roads to overall US energy consumption, but may be able to slow increases in fossil fuel energy.
The US produces about 10% more electricity than it consumes; most of this difference is exported to Canada and Mexico, and a small portion is just not used. The United States has long been the largest producer and consumer of electricity, with a global share in 2005 of at least 25%. Most electricity in the US (85.4%) is generated by burning fossil fuels, (mostly coal and gas, with some petroleum) to boil water to produce steam, so as electric consumption rises so does the use of fossil fuels, especially coal and natural gas. (The steam turns turbines that produce electricity.) Since the US population increases by about 1% per year, all things being equal, both electricity generation and consumption should have risen slightly more than 15% in each 15 year period (1975-1990 and 1990-2005), or, in fact, declined as a consequence of increased efficiency. However, during the first 15 years (1975-1990) electricity generation rose to meet a demand that increased 55%, and during the second 15 years (1990-2005) generation rose to meet a demand that increased another 35%.
US Electricity Generation (Billion Kilowatt hours)
1990 3,038 + 1,117 (58%)
2005 4,055 + 1,017 (33%)
US Electricity Consumption (Billion Kilowatt hours):
1990 2712.6 + 956.6 (55%)
2005 3661.0 + 948.4 (35%)
A closer look at the four major sectors consuming electricity reveals significant differences. While all four sectors increased their electricity consumption in each of the two 15 year periods by total amounts twice what would be expected from population growth alone, the increases for industry were significantly less during the period 1990-2005 than for the other three sectors. In fact, both residential and commercial users each now account for greater portions of electricity consumption than does industrial – a reversal of the situation in 1975. Furthermore, the increases in commercial consumption has been significantly greater than residential consumption; the smaller increases in residential and industrial consumption have been more than off-set by larger increases in commercial consumption.
1975 baseline (Residential + Commercial + Industrial + Transportation = Total)
1975 Res 588.1 Com 468.3 Ind 687.7 Tran 3.0 Tot 1,747.0
% of total: 34% 27% 39% 0.2%
Total increases (billion Kw hours):
1990 Res 924.0 Com 838.3 Ind 945.5 Tran 4.8 Tot 2,712.6
% of total: 34% 31% 35% 0.2%
2005 Res 1,359.2 Com 1,275.1 Ind 1,109.2 Tran 7.5 Tot 3,661.0
% of total: 37% 35% 30% 0.2%
Percentage increases (billion Kw hours):
1990 Res +57% Com +79% Ind +37% Tran +60% Tot +55%
2005 Res +47% Com +52% Ind +17% Tran +56% Tot +35%
(The US has vast reserves of coal, but the goal of “clean coal” has proven elusive despite huge long-standing tax breaks for the coal mining industry.)
Footnote #2. Planes, trains and cars – an American example.
(1 Mile = 1.6 Kilometer; $1.00 US = .69 Euro; 1 Gal US = 3.78 Liters)
Amtrak still operates the northern Empire Builder line that runs from Seattle through St. Paul to Chicago (about 2,000 miles) in about 45 hours, making brief stops in 38 towns along the way. Prices vary according to day of departure, but generally the trip costs $267 for a coach seat, almost competitive with air. But if you wanted to get two good night’s sleep on the long trip, you can reserve a room with two berths for another $600. Total rail cost about $865 (plus meals). Of course, you can drive from Seattle to Chicago – a driving distance of 2065 miles – in about 30 hours over 3.25 days. The trip would require about $360 in gasoline (@ $3.50/gal) plus three nights in motel rooms. Total driving cost about $700 (plus meals). On the other hand, you can catch an American Airlines plane (Boeing 737-800) from Seattle to Chicago at a cost of just $200; the trip would take only four hours and involve no additional costs.
What about departing from one of those remote Empire Builder stops along the way? You can board the train in Whitefish (northwest Montana) and travel to Chicago (about 1700 miles). The trip would take 31 hours and make brief stops in 30 towns. Prices vary according to day of the week, but generally the trip would still cost $267 for a coach seat. But if you wanted to get two good night’s sleep on the trip, you can reserve a room with two berths for another $600. Total rail cost is still about $865 (plus meals). Of course, you can drive from Whitefish to Chicago, a driving distance of 1725 miles, in about 25 hours over three days. The trip would require about $300 in gasoline (@ $3.50/gal) plus three nights in motel rooms. Total driving cost about $660 (plus meals). On the other hand, you can catch an Alaska Airlines plane (De Havilland DHC-8) from nearby Kalispell to Chicago at a cost of just $285. The trip would take only 5.5 hours and involve no additional costs (but it would involve first flying to Seattle and then changing to a Boeing 737-900 for the flight back over Montana to Chicago, a wasted extra 700 miles).
Clearly, the economics are not there, in either case. The cost of airline travel would have to increase by a factor of three before the prices of rail and road became competitive, but then there is the major time difference. Driving can compete with rail in both price and time, but will never be able to compete with the speed of air travel.
However, huge expanses of the rail route from Seattle to Chicago are relatively flat open prairie, ideal for high speed rail. Reducing the trip stops to five, high speed rail could complete the trip from Seattle to Chicago in a third of the current time – about 15 hours, probably obviating the need for a sleeping berth. (The high speed line could use much of the same right-of-way as the Empire Builder, which would continue to serve on a separate track as feeder for the fast train.)
So, even in the most sparsely populated parts of the country there is potential for high speed rail that makes sense – IF some negative force to off-set the energy efficiency paradox, something significant enough to reverse the inclination of natural human behavior, is in play, for the greater good.