Monday, May 15, 2017
The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse
Book Review: The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse – by David Owen (Riverhead Books, 2011)
This was an interesting book that brings out some useful ideas worth considering. However, I do not agree with all or even many of Owen’s conclusions about efficiency. While several may have been true in the past they need not hold for the future if humans approach the subject with more savvy. This is a book about pitfalls and conundrums in our quest to be green and sustainable. He is able to make good arguments in some cases for things that are considered green that in reality are not so much. The book is well titled as conundrums pop up all over – mostly of how to not increase demand while increasing efficiency and reducing carbon/pollution.
He starts out with the hypocrisy of high-carbon footprint environmentalists, including himself, who travel around the world in jets giving talks about how to be green. While technology can be helpful for saving energy and emissions it can also do just the opposite by making things like long-distance travel and energy-consuming communications technology cheaper and more accessible. That is part of the conundrum. Technology alone won’t help. Human behavior also needs to change and when technology incentivizes more consumption that is a form of ‘backfire.’
He mentions the global recession of 2008 combined with the then high price of oil led to reductions of carbon footprints, suggesting that higher energy prices would force us to reduce. However, with the advent of fracking and shale gas beginning in earnest around 2010 the reductions continued through today even with low energy prices. In that respect technology did reduce emissions considerably in the U.S. due mainly to gas replacing coal in power plants.
The fuel of our consumerism he notes is indeed cheap energy, combustion: “Heat is energy, and energy is leverage.” He seems to suggest that we need expensive energy in order to reduce emissions but I say that will hurt the poor and hurting the poor is not in anyone’s interest. He is right to note that energy is indeed the source of our prosperity.
He explores the popular concepts of ‘decoupling’ and ‘decarbonization.’ He thinks that decoupling, of economic growth from carbon emissions, is illusory. One example is that U.S. economic growth and lower carbon emissions was a result of exporting manufacturing to China where carbon emissions continued to rise. While this is/was true, since then there actually has been some real decoupling not related to exporting. He cites Danish researcher Jorgen S. Norgard who said that energy decoupling is “largely a statistical delusion.” However, as an example electricity demand in the U.S. has plateaued for some time now and is perhaps on a slight decline, despite economic growth. This is due not only to efficiency gains in power generation but also efficiency gains in products – so-called end-user efficiency.
We produce more finished goods with less raw materials though our optimized efficient use of the resources. However, Owen emphasizes that the cheaper and more accessible energy and other resources become the more we consume them. Sure this is true to a point and he mentions the cheap goods produced by China. However, it would be hard to argue that the Chinese and other developing countries do not have the right to access better standards of living and basic material necessities.
He compares innovation on clean energy to innovation to produce fossil fuels cheaper. While one might argue that better technology to get natural gas slows down adoption of renewable energy, it may be more important to society that it also provides cheaper energy. While making energy expensive and inaccessible may reduce carbon emissions it would also make life hard on many people. He states that inexpensive natural gas via fracking and horizontal drilling has damaged wind and solar but in balance I don’t think that is the case at all. Others including me see it more as complementary and giving time for renewables to develop economically and functionally. He talks about the unintended consequences of technology, mentioning specifically the development of CFCs and their replacement by less impactful but still impactful HFCs as refrigerants – but these days HFCs are also being replaced by things like butane which have far less global warming potential.
He states that the greenest community in the U.S. is New York City. A major reason for this is that it has vast use of public transportation, with half of the subway stops in the country. Over 50% of households there do not even own a car. Walking is a primary means of transportation. It is by far the most densely populated U.S. city and density naturally begets efficiency. People there have less space to accumulate things and they generate less trash per capita than most. Globally, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and the older sections of European capitals have the best density and low-car use advantages. He calls these advantages ‘intelligent density.’ He questions Forbes’ 2007 declaration of Vermont as the greenest state. It has low population, no public transit, and higher than average per capita car use. The population of parts of New York City far exceeds the populations of many spacious rural states. He notes, however, that these parts of New York like Manhattan and the Bronx have to suffer far lower per capita representation in the U.S. Senate (in many cases less than 5% of the representation of the states). The author grew up in a big house with a big yard but then lived in Manhattan with his family, deciding in 1985 to move to the country to escape the negative aspects of the city including: noise, smog, lack of nature, and bad smells. But he notes that it was an ecological disaster as the family’s carbon footprint and energy use soared. The solution, he says, is to live smaller, live closer, and drive less. He notes that automobile dependence is highest in the U.S., Canada, and Australia. He notes that not all public transit systems are economic, efficient, and lead to less per capita energy use. He cites Phoenix as an example.
Living smaller, living closer, and driving less all involve population density. The lower energy use and carbon footprints of dense populations is structural and also unconscious. It is built in. He states that GM should now be considered a Chinese company since they sell more vehicles in China than anywhere else. He sees moving to the country as even worse than urban sprawl as the rural sprawl often involves more travel than the urban form. Suburban sprawl can be densified to good effect, he suggests. He also notes that retirees can benefit from densified urban areas.
Next he states that oil is worse than coal. Oil and its derivatives, mainly gasoline, is the primary transport fuel. He states that even though cars only account for 1/3 of fossil fuel use they enable us to use up more energy in a traveling consumptive lifestyle – da yeah so what? Cars amplify consumption. I am not sure what his point is here. Should we outlaw driving? Consumption? He seems to suggest that in order to curb driving and consumption we would need to make driving more expensive, less convenient, and generally making us unhappy with driving. Good luck with that. We could also curb population by sterilizing people. Basically his argument is that as long as things that are considered non-green are convenient and cheap there will be no curbing of them.
In a discussion of walkability he notes that density encourages it and that distance to a grocery store is a factor. Higher population density also leads to better prices and selection at the local grocery store. Interestingly, he refutes the benefits of “locavorism” where local food is favored and shortest distance to food sources is venerated. He notes that more energy may be expended per unit of food by far in some situations where people drive small amounts to farmer’s markets than efficiently packed large trucks travelling long distances. He draws from a book called Just Food, by James E. McWilliams who says, “we’d be better off focusing on what happens to our food after we buy it than on its place of origin.” Home canning and maple syrup making are examples of energy intensive processes. Even organic farming has bigger environmental and energy footprints than are often expected due to agricultural sprawl and lower-yielding and less efficient operations. These days there are some great innovations happening in greenhouse gardening. He also cites strong evidence that becoming a vegetarian really reduces one’s impact, although he states it is not going so well for him. They say 80% of farmland is devoted to meat production. Food and non-food crops are best grown on the best land rather than on land that is the shortest distance to market. Bottom line is that the energy and carbon arguments for locavorism are very often flawed.
Traffic congestion is explored. First a pic shows four lanes of cars packed on a one-way filling the road. Second pic shows occupants of those vehicles sitting in the road – a bafflingly small amount of people. We drive way more car than human by weight. While public transit may often relieve congestion and waste emissions it can also backfire if more drivers appear when there is less congestion. Eliminating lanes is never popular. Traffic congestion can actually slow suburban sprawl especially since it lengthens commuting times. Conversely, cutting travel times by adding lanes or bypasses can increase sprawl. How to discourage driving while not significantly adding too much to congestion is yet another conundrum:
“The ideal automobile strategy would be to steadily remove driving lanes while maintaining congestion at levels that drivers find vexing, thereby giving them an ongoing incentive to embrace alternatives.”
In exploring public transit he first explores China with its growing amount of roads and drivers and traffic snarls. He mentions ideas like the straddling bus that is on tracks but goes over cars. It would not replace them so its appeal is also its flaw. He says public transit that actually displaces drivers would be greener but would infuriate drivers.
High-speed rail is explored. He notes that for it to be an environmental advantage it requires a certain amount of regular passengers and that is not always the case. He notes that if long-distance travel becomes cheaper more people will do it, again a conundrum. He notes that Europe in general has more efficient transport than the U.S. but this is mainly because destinations are more clustered and distances are typically shorter. High-speed rail can also increase the appeal of more long-distance commuting. He notes what he calls the “Prius Fallacy,” that having a more efficient means of transport merely makes one think one is being more efficient while in reality one tends to drive more. This did not apply to me when I bought a Prius since I was required to drive long-distance to work and to external job sites and meetings. I do not believe I drove any more, I just drove cheaper with my required and typical driving. The ability to drive cheaper did not increase demand for driving. In that sense, which applies in many cases, his arguments about more availability and less expense leading to increased demand are not substantiated in many cases.
In the same vein he goes on to suggest that increased fuel mileage standards will simply increase demand for driving. That may be true to a point – for people who had been driving less because of the expense. He mentions the work of former Dept. of Energy head Stephen Chu and efficiency guru Amory Lovins. Owen looks toward historical reactions to efficiency to make his point that increased efficiency tends to increase demand significantly. I think this is misleading. In the past things like refrigeration became basic needs. As refrigerators finally became more efficient I don’t think people are trending toward more and bigger refrigerators overall but maybe some are.
Next he goes through the 19th century story of William Stanley Jevons from his 1865 book, The Coal Question, where Jevons concluded that more efficient use of a resource inevitably leads to more consumption. Jevons believed this to be a fundamental economic and behavioral truth and Owen seems to echo that. This has become known as the ‘Jevons Effect’ or the ‘Jevons Paradox.’ I don’t see it that way as I think there is a limit to how much efficiency affects consumption. If there is a basic need for the increased consumption it will tend to happen. If it is more superfluous, say some sort of luxury, then the effect will be less, and if mindful social habit and effort is exerted toward decreased consumption then the effect will be even less. These days, Jevons effects are called “rebounds.” He mentions American researcher Harry D. Saunders, who in a 1992 paper stated,
“With fixed real energy price energy efficiency gains will increase energy consumption above where it would be without these gains.” Although energy prices are rarely fixed I think this effect has not occurred in the American electricity market in the last 10 years. In 2011 Saunders stated, “Rebound effects are subtle and complex…. The complex and varied phenomena known collectively as ‘rebound effects’ mean that we cannot expect that improving the energy efficiency of steel production by 30%, for example, will yield a simple and direct 30% reduction in the energy consumed by the steel sector, let alone the economy as a whole. Just as economists expect that gains in labor productivity will contribute to greater employment overall, not less, gains in energy productivity (a.k.a. energy efficiency) are not likely to be taken up simply as direct reductions in energy demand overall.”
I can agree with that – that rebound effects exist and will occur – but I think the net benefit of increased efficiency is still quite clear. That is also the conclusion of efficiency experts. One expert, Lee Schipper, noted that the most useful comparison is not between consumption before and after efficiency gains but between ‘with efficiency gains’ and without them. Amory Lovins also noted that there are clear and logical limits to rebound effects so that in most cases the effects will remain small, even trivial. Saunders disagrees with Lovins and says that it is not lower energy costs but profit-maximization and consumer welfare-maximization that lead to different energy use trajectories. I think he is saying that new technologies tend to find new ways to expend more energy as energy becomes cheaper. One possible recent example is information and communications tech where ease of smart phone functions and the advent of cloud storage has vastly increased energy consumption. Thus while end-use efficiency may lead to less energy use, the additional products and services that provide and support new products often tend to add to overall energy use. Saunders sees rebound more as ‘chain reaction.’ End-use energy use only accounts for about one-third of energy used so that energy used to produce goods and services (which makes up two-thirds) always needs to be considered. He next considers advances in refrigeration technology that enabled a vast increase in refrigeration capacity in markets and homes. The bottom line I think is that in a full impact analysis rebound is often not trivial at all but can be very significant. Even so I think the fact that electric use in the U.S. has plateaued and even declined a bit is clear evidence that the overall net effects of increased efficiency are quite real. Saunders seems to conclude that efficiency gains will always lead to increased energy consumption and that is clearly not the case overall. This he calls ‘backfire’ – a rebound in energy demand greater than 100%. His argument is basically that as energy becomes more productive then ultimately more will be used – again refuted by overall electricity demand in the U.S.
Next he considers air conditioning, pointing to data that shows that as A/C became 28% more efficient between 1993 and 2005 while energy consumption from A/C use rose 37%. He gives the ‘technology makes us lazy’ argument. Some people have even proposed that many of us have become physically addicted to air conditioning. He also notes Breakthrough Institute’s Jesse Jenkins noted that efficiency improvements may also produce “frontier effects” which “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.” Owens notes that,
“Despite what Amory Lovins and other efficiency mavens have repeatedly claimed, the drop in unit energy consumption and the rise in global energy consumption are not unrelated.”
He concedes that frontier effects can go both ways – toward more or less energy use – but the overall effect historically has been toward more.
Finally, he makes the pertinent statement, “Not all efficiency gains stimulate consumption.” Requirements for more efficient plumbing fixtures in New York City led to less water use, partially because New Yorkers are not big water users in any case. Then he states that efficiency gains increase wealth which offers more opportunities for increased consumption. While that may be true we have a clear need for the global poor to gain wealth and for people to have basic needs and conveniences regardless of the gains in energy use. Increasing costs and decreasing convenience may seem a good strategy for reducing emissions but it won’t work. It is simply a form of forced austerity. Owen says that only ‘bottom-up’ studies of rebound are possible due to the complexity and those underreport rebound by significant amounts. Schipper points out that “because we can extract vastly more economic benefit from a ton of coal than nineteenth-century Britons did, efficiency gains now have much less power to stimulate consumption.” Ecological economist Blake Alcott counters with a similar argument in favor of Jevons effects. Owen notes that American electricity production grew 66% between 1984 and 2005. However, it has clearly stagnated since 2008. Efficiency gains have been applied far more since 2008 than previously. According to Owen trying to address our energy and climate problems with efficiency gains and other “soft-path” strategies and turning that into reduced consumption is a trick we have yet to figure out.
Driving and the concept of a green car is next explored. Even though we now get vastly more mpg we still tend to drive a lot. Making driving easier makes us drive more, says Owen, but it seems to me there is a limit to that. Owen seems to suggest that a Green Big Brother austerity approach of forced inefficiency can lower impacts but frankly it is so not feasible as to sound absurd. It’s simply not a real choice, especially with the uncertainties of the effects of climate change. He notes that increasing fuel economy has the same effect as reducing the price of gasoline. He points out that advocating for efficiency involves no political risk as opposed to advocating for sacrifices like a carbon tax.
Ecological economist Herman Daly says we should ‘impose frugality’ before we promote efficiency as efficiency without frugality is more likely to lead to more rebound and increased consumption. I think maybe that there is indeed the key. Owen notes that Keynes dismissed Jevons’ arguments while still admiring his prose.
He next examines the impact of new supplies of fracked natural gas. He notes gas as the least impactful and lowest carbon-emitting hydrocarbon but also mentions the potential for spills from the vastly increased wastewater volumes. He acknowledges many of the benefits. He also notes that low natural gas prices make producing tar sands oil cheaper as well. He notes also that cheap natural gas makes renewables less attractive. He considers that an increasing price for natural gas will make coal more attractive in the future. That is not likely to happen in the U.S. in the near or mid-term.
Next he examines cheap, efficient lighting. Much lighting is unnecessary, he notes, and making it cheaper makes unnecessary lighting more ubiquitous. Artificial lighting affects wildlife and insects in mostly negative ways. There is also the effects of artificial lighting on our circadian rhythms, also mostly negative. He does not mention that swapping incandescent and fluorescent lighting for compact fluorescents and now much improved LED lighting has been and continues to be a major factor in reducing electricity consumption.
Next he takes on water conservation. He cites Las Vegas. The city managed to cut per capita water use to below average but that he says encourages more sprawl and more population. Using water more efficiently is never as useful as simply using less water. Las Vegas’s recycled water for irrigation tends to be high in salts and eventually will require treatment. Owen compares the problem to that of the Green Revolution which was stellar at first but later problems developed such as aquifers draining, salt concentration due to irrigation, decreasing soil fertility, and increasing population.
Next is burning trash. He points out the city of Kristianstad, Sweden, which derives energy and heat not from fossil fuels but from burning trash, biomass. They import much of the waste which shows that biomass (and biogas) resources are simply inadequate as a large scale energy source. Biogas from anaerobic digestion is cleaner than burning trash and its use will continue to climb especially since it also mitigates methane venting. Biomass derived from forestry industry waste is only locally sustainable and also a limited resource. Bottom-line is that solid biomass as an energy source is limited in availability, pollutes and adds carbon slightly more than coal per unit of energy produced, and is quite unpopular. Biogas is better but quite limited.
Next he takes on solar energy:
“Most suburban owners of solar panels could put a sign in their front yard saying, ‘My neighbors pay my electric bills!’”
He emphasizes the limits to solar: cost, unreliability, intermittency, difficulty in scaling, and difficulty with grid integration (need for storage). Solar installations have some environmental effects such as the large thermo-solar utility plants affecting desert tortoises. Solar panel production makes some toxic waste.
He goes on to mention the considerable environmental effects of hydropower. One problem with utility-scale solar, wind, and hydro is that the best resources are often far from where the power is needed most so that long inefficient transmission lines are required. Here he reiterates probably the main theme from this book, the main conundrum:
“From an environmental perspective, cheap energy is a problem, no matter what the source.”
He is right from one perspective, however annoying, but that is certainly not the only perspective.
He spends two whole chapters on wind energy, particularly kite wind devices which might one day harness more powerful upper level winds being developed by a company backed by Google. That was 7 years ago so I have my doubts about feasibility and so does Owen.
This leads to the next chapter titled, ‘The Discouraging Economics of Innovation.’ Here he continues to explore renewable energy prototypes and innovations. While Bill Gates thinks we can throw billions at renewable energy research and come up with significant results, others are not so sure. Even if there are technical successes those then have to become economic successes in order to be adopted. Just because we are throwing large amounts of money at things does not mean we are on the verge of real breakthroughs. He mentions also the biggest American investment in renewables – corn-based ethanol – which is pretty much a disaster by all accounts. Decarbonization is likely a problem we will be struggling with for some time despite enhanced focus on it and despite the very real concerns of climate scientists.
He explores smart grid technology a bit where energy flows both ways and power-hogging appliances can be automatically switched off during peak energy demand times. However, the gadgetry uses some energy as well and costs money to buy. There will, however, likely be significant energy saving results of smart grid tech, strategic energy storage, and distributed energy resources. He ponders that if we rented our phones and appliances they would be built to last much longer and ‘planned obsolescence’ and continuous upgrades would no longer be as profitable.
The conundrum is equivalent to our ‘climate-and-energy dilemma.’ Owen favors the solution – ‘consume less.’ I think in general that is happening here in affluent countries in individual, industrial, and utility scales as overall consumption and demand has confirmed somewhat. However, it is not likely to drop much further – there are limitations – even with continued focus on efficiency and energy waste reduction. The conundrum is unlikely to go away any time soon. He thinks that the problem for us is that energy is too cheap. Good luck telling that to the poor among us. Promoting efficiency without constraining consumption is doomed to fail, he says. He states that permanent year-over-year economic growth is not sustainable. Good luck telling that to business people and politicians. “Income disparity is a global generator of environmental harm.” It tends to increase consumption through the luxury goods of the wealthy. Having the poor leveraged by excessive borrowing also hurts the economy. He notes that what we drive matters less than how much we drive. Miles is the problem not miles per gallon, he emphasizes. Despite renewable energy ‘hype, hucksterism, and faulty arithmetic,’ he still thinks we need to make bigger efforts with the renewable technologies currently available. Urban living has proven to reduce population as well as be green by way of density so continued migration of the population to cities should decrease per capita energy use. He suggests strongly enforced speed limits to also force better gas mileage, as in Australia, apparently. Good luck with that.
Owen’s book here is indeed annoying but in many ways necessarily so. Many are quite naïve and unrealistic about these problems and need a dose of the harsh realities we all face here. Owen delivers the harsh realities and so we see some of our challenges with more focus.