David Owen, The Conundrum
Riverhead Books, 2011
Efficiency has been called “an invisible powerhouse” and “a fifth fuel.”
In a paper published in 1998, the Yale economist William D. Nordhaus estimated the cost of lighting throughout human history. An ancient Babylonian, he calculated, needed to work more than 41 hours to acquire enough lamp oil to provide a thousand lumen-hours of light -- the equivalent of the standard 75-watt incandescent lamp burning for a little less than an hour. Thirty-five hundred years later, a contemporary of Thomas Jefferson's could buy the same amount of illumination, in the form of tallow candles, by working for about five hours and 20 minutes. By 1992, an average American with access to compact fluorescents, could do the same is less than half a second.
In other words, increasing the energy efficiency of illumination is nothing new; improved lighting has been "a lunch you’re paid to eat" ever since humans upgraded from cave fires (58 hours of labor for our early Stone Age ancestors, according to Nordhaus.) Furthermore, the effect is even larger than it seems, because our ever-growing ability to inexpensively illuminate our activities has transformed our lives in ways that go far beyond our expenditures on lighting. Increasingly inexpensive, efficient illumination has lengthened the workday, increased our opportunities for energy-hungry leisure, and given us access to luxuries that would otherwise be inconceivable.
Many sources of artificial light -- our television sets, our computer screens, our mobile telephones, the control panels of our appliances, in the front panels of vending machines, the projectors in movie theaters, the signs and billboards along our highways, the slot machines in Las Vegas casinos -- don't even register in our minds as forms of illumination. Indeed, we now generate light so extravagantly, and at so little incremental cost, that darkness itself become endangered natural resource.
Again, correlation proves nothing about causation. Nor is there anything earthshaking in pointing out that people nowadays are wealthier and consume more than people in the past. Yet it's also apparent that sustained, dramatic improvements in the efficiency of lighting have not caused a drop in the total amount of energy we expend on illumination, or shrunk energy consumption overall -- a fact that, at the very least, ought to make us skeptical about predictions that further efficiency gains will cause global energy consumption to fall.
Page 117 -18
Harry Saunders, in a response to Amory Lovins' objections to my New Yorker article, told me, "In Amory's world, energy efficiency gains reduce energy use in a one-for-one fashion and everything else stays essentially the same as it would otherwise be. His ‘hoc’ (energy efficiency) accordingly leads him to a ‘propter hoc’ that is wildly off the mark. In reality, efficiency gains in the productive part of the energy economy unleash a host of effects that travel via multiple pathways through the economy: substitutions; output price reductions that feed other producers can work their way through products and services to the final consumer; newly enabled applications and products; and so forth. In economist-speak, Amory makes the mistake of treating energy-cost minimization as the economic force, when in fact it is overall profit-maximization and consumer welfare-maximization, which lead to far different energy-use trajectories. Actual energy-use dynamics are much more complex than this characterization, however alluring his argument may appear to the rational mind. Unfortunately he’s simply wrong."
Saunders, in 2011, wrote, "Many of us, when contemplating the potential for reduced energy use, quite naturally reference our thoughts around those opportunities we see around us in our personal realm -- energy used in the household or for private transportation. But this ‘end use’ energy consumption represents only a relatively small fraction of the energy we actually consume. Globally, some two-thirds of all energy that is consumed is the energy used to produce the goods and services we consume. Your washing machine may be very efficient in its use of energy, but think of the metal body alone in the energy required to mind, smelt, stamp, coat, assemble, and transport it to the dealer showroom where you bought the appliance. The energy 'embedded' in your washing machine is substantial. The same is true for any product you purchase or service you consume."
Efficiency improvements are not limited to energy. They take place throughout the global economy and push down costs at every level -- from the mining of raw materials to the fabrication transportation of finished goods to the frequency and intensity of actual use -- and falling costs stimulate both manufacturers and consumers. (Coincidentally or not, the growth of American refrigerator volume has been paralleled by the growth of American body mass index.) Harry Saunders has observed that efficiency increases occur in all factors of production -- capital, labor, materials -- and that all such gains also increase energy use, as well as synergistically reinforcing one another. He cites as an example the primary-metals sector of the economy -- a sector that comprises companies which produce raw materials and alloys, mainly from ore and scrap. Between 1980 and 2000, he writes, this sector experienced "the aggressive introduction of electric arc furnaces for steel production that were highly efficient in the use of both capital and labor, in addition to energy" and this transformation contributed to average annual efficiency gains of 2.46% for capital, 3.30% for labor, 2.90% for energy, and 0.53% for materials -- and resulted in an overall "'all factor’ energy rebound" of 172%, thus more than negating any energy "savings" from efficiency gains.
"By this analysis," Saunders concludes, "the increased efficiency of other factors not only increased energy consumption in this sector, but created significant backfire -- a rebound in demand greater than 100%. The consequence of this phenomenon is rather profound. The problem is not so much that efficiency gains targeted at energy also improve the efficiency of other factors (a feature of energy efficiency that analysts such as Amory Lovins cite as a key ancillary benefit); the real problem is that technology gains, considered together, increase energy consumption. Without these gains, energy consumption would be lower. Analytically, this makes 'teasing out' energy-specific rebound effects extra challenging. But the larger problem is that from a climate perspective technology gains generally are a culprit in increasing energy use."
In any context other than energy, such an observation would be uncontroversial. No economist would argue, for example, that making manufacturing plants more efficient causes total manufacturing to shrink. Leonard Brookes told me, "if you take all the resources available to you and succeed in raising the productivity of one of them, in relation to the others, then that particular one tends to have a higher level of employment in the economy. Now, this argument you see most clearly with labor. If you persuade the workers that they should increase their productivity, all of past history shows that this increases their employability. And there's no reason that should be any different for energy. If you increase the productivity of energy, then this increases its employment level in the economy."
Efficiency-related increases in one category, furthermore, spill into others. Refrigerators are the fraternal twins of air conditioners, which use the same energy-hungry compressor technology to force heat to do something that nature doesn't want to do. Because of that technological relationship, innovations that push down the cost of refrigeration also pushed down the cost of air conditioning -- thereby increasing its attractiveness to consumers -- and vice versa. When I was a child, cold air was of far greater luxury than cold groceries. My parents' first house -- like 88% of all American homes in 1960 -- didn't even have a window air conditioner when they bought it, in 1954, although they broke down and got a unit for their bedroom during a heat wave that summer, when my mom was pregnant with me; their second house had central air conditioning but running it seem so expensive to my father that, for years, he could seldom be persuaded to turn it on, even at the height of a Kansas City summer, when the air was so humid it felt like a swimmable liquid. Then he replaced our ancient Carrier unit with a modern one, which consumed less electricity, and our house, like most American houses, evolved rapidly from being essentially un-air-conditioned to being air-conditioned all summer long.
Modern air-conditioners, like modern refrigerators are vastly more energy efficient than admit-20th-century predecessors -- in both cases, partly because of tighter standards established by the Department of energy. But that efficiency is driven down the cost of operation, and manufacturing efficiencies and other productivity gains have driven down the cost of production, and those trends acting together have fueled market expansion, and the resulting economic growth is increase our wealth and therefore our ability to buy more. One consequence is that the ownership percentage of 1960 has now flipped: by 2005, according to the Energy Information Administration, 84% of all US homes had air-conditioning, and most of it was central. Stan Cox, the author of italics Losing Our Cool, told me that, between 1993 and 2005, "The energy efficiency of residential air-conditioning equipment improved 28%, but energy consumption for AC by the average air-conditioned household rose 37%." That increase has been exacerbated by the fact that once people have air-conditioning they forget how to keep cool without it. My grandparents lived without air-conditioning in a hot part of the country but still managed to survive virtually a century apiece -- and even in August my grandfather never took off his tie. They controlled summer temperatures by placing awnings over the windows, opening their windows and curtains at night enclosing them in the morning, and, especially hot nights, running a big whole-house fan that looked like a propeller salvaged from the Titanic. When I spent the night at their house during the summer, I would sleep on top of my covers with my head by the open window at the foot of my bed, and the basement zephyr would carry me off to sleep. I liked lying with my head by the window, because that way I could directly observe the many personal problems my grandparents' neighbors, a large dysfunctional family.
In most of the United States today, such low-tech cooling techniques have essentially disappeared, to such an extent that when our houses feel hot to us we don't even bother to draw the curtains, but instead reach for air-conditioner controls. One result, Cox has observed, is that we now use roughly as much electricity to cool buildings as we did for all purposes in 1955. Another is that a room that used to be a standard feature of houses in many parts of the country, the screened porch, has become far less common. (If you don't have air-conditioning, the screened porch is usually the coolest room in your house: it's where you go in the evening to beat the heat. But once you have air-conditioning the screened porch immediately becomes the hottest room in your house, and often seems unbearable by comparison. Once people who own old houses have added air-conditioning, they often enclose, air-condition, and heat their porches, so that they can continue to use them, year-round, without feeling uncomfortable. Energy use begets energy use.)
As Losing Our Cool clearly shows, similar effects permeate the economy. The same technological gains that propelled the growth of the US residential and commercial cooling have helped turn automobile air-conditioners, which barely existed in the 1950s, into standard equipment on even the least luxurious vehicles. (Similarly: power windows. In the United States, hand-cranked car windows are now almost as rare as hand-cranked car engines.) According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, running a midsized car' s air conditioner increases fuel consumption by more than 20% -- but the effects reach far beyond automotive cooling. Owning a comfortable car makes people willing to drive more miles and to endure commutes that would have seemed intolerable just a generation or two ago, thereby adding impetus to suburban sprawl and further reducing the appeal of (and demand for) public transit. Furthermore, access to cooled air is self-reinforcing: to someone who works in air-conditioned office in drives and air-conditioned car, living in an un-air-conditioned house becomes intolerable. A resident of Las Vegas once described cars to me as "devices were transporting air-conditioning between buildings." In 1992, Gwyn Prins, a Cambridge University anthropologist, wrote that "physical addiction to air-conditioned air is the most pervasive and least noticed epidemic in modern America." One sign of our dependence is the declining significance of seasonal clothing. The year-round business suit is a product air-conditioning; so are the Tweed sports jackets worn by Hollywood executives at mid-July.
Brookes told me, "Critics will say there’s a limit to how much you can backslide in your house. But you have to point out to them that they’re not taking into account the fact that, if you really do make it cheaper to get your home heating or central air-conditioning, then the demand for a better standard of home heating or air-conditioning goes further down the income spectrum." In less than half a century it has become possible for Americans even a relatively modest means to spend the entire summer days without passing more than a few moments in air that hasn't been artificially chilled -- from home to car to work and shopping mall to home. (And although, as Lovins points out, we Americans don't use our more efficient furnaces to heat our houses to "sauna temperatures" during the winter, we do now heat much more than twice as much living space per person as we did in 1950.) These same forces have accelerated the spread of cooling technologies all over the world. According to Cox, between 1997 and 2007 the use of air-conditioners tripled in China (where a third of the world's units are now manufactured, and where many air-conditioner purchases are subsidized by the government). In Dubai, hotel swimming pools are often chilled, rather than heated, to keep swimmers from feeling poached. In India, air-conditioning is projected to increase tenfold in metropolitan Mumbai.
To suggest a causal connection between increased efficiency and increased consumption in this way strikes many economists and others is entirely misguided. Michael A. Levi, who is the David M. Rubenstein senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations, has written that "declining appliance prices have nothing to do with increased efficiency -- in fact, everything else being equal, increased efficiency leads to higher appliance prices (because the equipment seller captures part of the energy cost savings)." Furthermore, he writes, "my guess is that the spread of air-conditioners (as well as cars and other such things) is driven mainly by the facts that people have more money to spend and that the devices are cheaper. The reduced cost of fueling them, I suspect, is a distant third."
This seems logical; but it's the kind of narrow, short-term, "bottom-up" analysis that Brookes and Saunders believe to be not only inadequate but misleading, since it focuses on specific end uses by consumers rather than on long-term macroeconomic effects. It also begs the question of where people get "more money to spend" and what makes devices cheaper, since even efficiency mavens treat increased efficiency as a form of income: it's "the lunch are paid to eat." (Even so, Saunders has shown, in the United States between 1987 and 2002, household energy use rose in every income category and was therefore driven by more than income increases alone.) Efficiency improvements, furthermore, producer Jesse Jenkins, who is the director of energy and climate policy for the Breakthrough Institute, has described as "frontier effects" -- which, he writes, "result when efficiency gains unlock whole new areas of the production possibility frontier, leading to potentially vast new markets, or even whole new industries for energy services."
Imagine you are an electronics engineer at Bell Labs in the 1940s. You feel frustrated by the large size, cost, and energy requirements of vacuum tubes, and you wish you had access to something that performs the same functions but with smaller, cheaper, and more energy-efficient. Then, in 1947, your colleague William Shockley and his team developed the transistor, which answers all those needs, and within a relatively short time of vacuum tube is on its way to becoming obsolete. But the transition from tubes to transistors doesn't result only in the more-efficient redesign of electronic devices that existed in 1947: smaller, less energy-hungry radios; television sets that sit on narrower tables and don't need to "warm up"; computers that are indistinguishable from Second World War-era computers except that they consume less power and fit into smaller rooms. Instead, entire new categories of energy consumption arise almost instantaneously -- frontier effects -- and all that new consumption accelerates and amplifies as transistors become still smaller, cheaper, and more efficient. Viewed solely in the context of 1947, the transistor is a brilliant breakthrough in efficiency, dematerialization and decarbonization: a portal to a low-energy future. But from the vantage point of early twenty-first century, 6½ decades after Shockley's innovation, we can easily see that its real impact has been utterly different. Modern transistors are almost infinitely smaller and more energy-efficient than their mid-20th-century equivalents (since they are now etched onto computer chips and individually require only infinitesimal amounts of power) -- but my house contains billions of them, and most of them perform functions that no one in 1947 could've anticipated. As a consequence by electronics-related consumption of energy and other resources has soared, not fallen -- and so has the world's. And, despite what Amory Lovins and other efficiency mavens have repeatedly claimed, the drop in unit energy consumption and the rising global energy consumption are not unrelated.
Frontier effects can work in both directions, since new markets and new industries often displace or even obliterate inefficient old ones. The free navigation app on my Droid X phone has made my year-old Garmin GPS device seem just about useless; the video camera on the iPhone killed the Flip. But if you widen your point of view, so that it takes in the entire economy you can easily see it the overall trend, historically and globally, has always been in the direction of more. Efficiency gains of all kinds have enabled modern workers to accomplish in minutes tasks that used to require hours, even weeks. But that doesn't mean we call it quits after a few minutes, put up our feet, and spend the rest of our day twiddling our thumbs. We keep working and earning and spending and consuming -- and we have the energy consumption, carbon output, and three-car garages to prove it.
Economic growth, by any definition, is the cumulative result of a vast and complexly interconnected web of factors, including productivity gains in efficiency improvements. And it's not a force of evil, since it's responsible for virtually all the tremendous comforts of modern life, including the innumerable reasons I'm grateful I'm alive today and not 100 years ago. But economic growth, no matter how it arises, has environmental consequences, too. If, in Vaclav Smil's memorable phrase, energy flows are "the only real currency in the biosphere," the ultimate source of our riches is clear enough. The issue is whether we have the moral courage and political will to try to bend it in a different direction.
Making US cars less costly to operate makes other countries' cars less costly to operate, too -- a bad thing, if the goal is to contain the direct and indirect environmental damage that is attributable, globally, to automobiles. The last thing the world needs is an inexpensive car gets 100 miles to the gallon, because once we have it there will no longer be a significant barrier, worldwide, to becoming a driver. And, as American history shows clearly, increasing the pool of drivers sets off a cascade of interconnected, seemingly irreversible environmental crises. More cars mean more roads, more roads mean more suburbs, and more suburbs mean more energy use and environmental damage in every category. And that goes for hybrids and electric cars every bit as much as it does for those powered by gasoline.
In 1976, Amory Lovins, in a celebrated article in Foreign Affairs called "Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken?" argued that the United States faced a choice between its current, environmentally perilous energy policy, which depended on the steadily increasing use of fossil fuels and nuclear power, and what he described as a "soft energy path," based on renewables, conservation, and efficiency. The conventional interpretation of our energy history since then is that America and most of the rest of the world have chosen the hard path over the soft, but in reality we’ve followed both. Nearly every energy-using device I own today is vastly more efficient than its 1976 equivalent: my house is better insulated; my furnace produces more heat from less oil; my windows are more weather-tight; my dishwasher and washing machine use less water, electricity, and detergent; in my car gets half again as many miles to the gallon despite being faster, heavier, less polluting, more mechanically reliable, and more equipped with fancy accessories. Yet my energy use and environmental impact have risen, because I have used my efficiency gains to leverage increases in my consumption, not to shrink it, and to satisfy wants that, 40 years ago, I didn't know I had. Believing that we can address our energy and climate problems with efficiency gains and other "soft-path" strategies is like believing that homeowners can make their debt problems go away by increasing their charging limits on their credit cards. Lovins is undoubtedly correct when he says that we could live regally on little more than what we currently waste. But turning reduced waste into reduced consumption is a trick we haven't figured out. Paying the world to eat lunch, so far, hasn't caused the world to lose weight.
Every suburban parent knows that the easiest way to have a frank one-on-one with a child is take the child for a drive, since the child's is strapped into his seat in more or less the posture of a psychotherapy patient and can't escape.
A modern driver, in other words, gets vastly more benefit from a gallon of gasoline -- makes far more economical use of fuel -- than any Model T. owner ever did. But we have used those remarkable efficiency gains to increase our consumption, not to reduce it, and we now depend on our cars in ways that our grandparents and great-grandparents could never have imagined. Given that dependence, it shouldn't be surprising to us that our driving-related energy use has grown by mind-boggling amounts. US consumption of motor gasoline has risen from about 11½ million gallons per day in 1920, to 43 million in 1930, 110 million in 1950, to 243 million in 1970, to 304 million in 1990, to approximately 390 million today. As always, the problem with efficiency gains is that we inevitably reinvest them in additional consumption. Paving roads reduces rolling friction, thereby boosting miles per gallon, but also makes distant destinations seem closer, making it easier for us to drive longer distances and enabling us to live in new, sprawling, energy-gobbling subdivisions far from where we work and shop. And the effect is self-reinforcing, because living in those subdivisions further increases our dependence on cars, and so pushes up the number of miles we drive in all our other activities. When efficiency advocates say that automotive efficiency initiatives lose only 10% of their fuel savings to rebound, they make it clear that they're not looking at the real issue.
During a talk I gave in New York 2011, I described one possible vision of a green automobile: no air conditioner, no heater, no radio, unpadded seats, open passenger compartment, top speed of 25 miles an hour, fuel economy of five or ten miles a gallon. You'd be able to get your child to the emergency room, but could never run over to Wal-Mart for a bag of potato chips, and you’d take public transportation to work. It's a given among environmentalists that Americans pay too little for gasoline, since a relative bargain pushes up our energy consumption by encouraging us to drive too much. Yet increasing fuel economy is the exact economic equivalent of reducing the price of gasoline, since doubling a car’s miles per gallon has the same effect, on the driver's wallet, of halving the cost of the fuel. One of the arguments made by the proponents of electricity- and methane-powered vehicles is that they will (in theory) substantially lower the cost of driving. How likely is that to weaken our infatuation with automobiles?
Herman E. Daly -- an ecological economist and professor emeritus of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland -- has written of the environmental necessity of imposing frugality (i.e., artificially increasing energy's scarcity through caps or taxes) before promoting efficiency (i.e., artificially increasing energy's abundance). He has written that "frugality first induces efficiency second; efficiency first dissipates itself by making frugality appear less necessary. Frugality keeps the economy at a sustainable scale; efficiency of allocation helps us live better at any scale, but does not help us set the scale itself." If we impose limits on our consumption of fossil fuels, advances in efficiency will enable us to live well with less damage; if we pursue efficiency alone, we will only make our problems worse.
Steve Sorrell, a senior fellow at Sussex University and coeditor of a comprehensive recent book on rebound, called Energy Efficiency and Sustainable Consumption, told me, "I think the point may be that Jevons has yet to be disproved. It is rather hard to demonstrate the validity of his proposition, but certainly the historical evidence to date is wholly consistent with what he was arguing." That might be something to think about as you climb into our plug-in hybrids and continue our journey, with ever-increasing efficiency, down the road paved with good intentions.
The modern American environmental movement was inspired, in 1962, by the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, which described the environmental impacts of pesticides. The global spread of inexpensive, highly efficient outdoor lighting has arguably been his ruinous -- and it's more insidious, because the impact isn't obvious. (For clear depictions of the scale of this problem, type in "earth at night" at Google.)