Monday, December 20, 2010

An energy dilemma

Is increasing energy efficiency a bad thing? Well, maybe so.

In his article in the current New Yorker, author David Owen says the question was first raised 150 years ago. The 29-year-old British economist Willam Jevons concluded that more economical use of fuel results not in diminished consumption but an overall increase.

At the time, Great Britain was the world's leading industrial power, but its coal reserves were running out. Jevons said efforts to increase coal-burning efficiency would only backfire. As an example, he focused on the British iron industry. If a new process could produce iron with less coal, profits would rise, stimulating construction of new blast furnaces. Coal use at the increased number of furnaces would more than make up for the diminished consumption of each of them.

We no longer live in the Industrial Revolution, but similar examples still abound. The efficiency of refrigeration and air conditioning has improved greatly over the past half century, but their spread throughout society has meant that their overall energy use has grown far more. Cars have become much better at using fuel economically. But rather than fall, fuel consumption keeps rising. Whenever we save energy, we find more and more ways to use what we saved. Our standard of living goes up, but so does our energy use.

Those who downplay the Jevons effect believe that, in the end, it has little applicability in the modern world. And they raise this rather absurd corollary - if our energy use were to become less efficient, does that mean consumption would decrease?

So, is efficiency a bad thing? Well, maybe.

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