Many believe that one way to lower our nations energy demand is to increase
energy efficiency. However, history reveals a paradox: the more efficiently
we use energy, the more energy we end up using.
The Bottomless Well, Peter Huber and Mark Mills explain this
efficiency conundrum: Efficiency fails to curb demand
because it lets more people do more, and do it fasterand
more/more/faster invariably swamps all the efficiency gains.
Ironically, they write, efficiency increases consumption.
It makes what we ultimately consume cheaper, and lower price
almost always increases consumption. To curb energy consumption,
you have to lower efficiency, not raise it.
In terms of the amount of energy consumed to produce a (constant)
dollars worth of gross domestic product, the United
States energy efficiency improved 49 percent between
1949 and 2000, according to the EIA. However, during the same
period, U.S. energy consumption increased a whopping 208 percent.
Like efficiency gains,
may result in slight energy-use
reductions but will not make a huge dent in overall
That over two-thirds (67.6 percent) of respondents believe
that the U.S. can meet future energy needs via conservation
and efficiency gains is understandable, considering the massive
amount of U.S. energy consumption, both cumulative and per
capita. Its reasonable to assume that, if we can just
find more efficient ways to produce and use energy, we can
lower our overall consumption; yet for this to be truefor
efficiency gains to produce a decrease in overall consumptionenergy
demand must be flat.
However, energy use is not static. In fact, it grows every year and is projected
to continue growing. Efficiency gains may result in slight energy-use reductions
at the margins, but they cannot control or curtail bulk energy demands. Like
efficiency gains, personal conservationsuch as turning off the light when
you leave a room or not running your air conditioner twenty-four hours a daymay
result in slight energy-use reductions but will not make a huge dent in overall
energy consumption. As our population continues to grow, this will only become
The EIA projects global energy consumption to increase 50 percent from 2005
to 2030 and U.S. energy use to increase 11.2 percent
from 2007 to 2030. Pennsylvania State University
professor Frank Clemente says that, in order to meet energy demand in 2030,
the U.S. will need all of the following power increases:
Nuclear power production: 38 percent
Oil production: 43 percent
Renewable energy production: 61 percent
Natural gas production: 64 percent
Coal production: 74 percent
main sources of our total energy consumption are not well
understood. Over half (52.6 percent) of respondents chose
driving and transportation as the main uses of energy in the
United States. Theyre wrong: the industrial sector
is the largest end user of energy. Of the 101.6 quadrillion
British thermal units (quads) of energy consumed in the U.S.
in 2007, the industrial sector consumed 32.32 quads (31.81
percent), while the commercial,
residential, and transportation
sectors consumed 18.43 quads (18.14 percent), 21.75 quads
(21.41 percent), and 29.1 quads (28.64 percent), respectively.
However, these figures give a misleading impression of how and why we use energy.
Moreover, the sector breakdowns do not compare apples with apples, so they are
not particularly instructive. For example, industrial activities could include
transportation in and around factories, so the lines separating the sectors
are not clear-cut. A much simpler way to express and understand the breakdown
in our nations energy usage is to break down energy usage into three categories:
electricity, raw heat, and transportation. Of the 100 or so quads of fuel we
use annually, roughly 40 quads generate electricity, 30 quads generate raw heat,
and 30 quads move vehicles. Energy consumption is, therefore, not dominated
by driving or any other single activity or sector but rather is spread fairly
evenly across the whole range of economic activity, none of which is immune
to the efficiency paradox.
As our population grows (and with it, our energy needs), as emerging economies
like China and India feverishly build infrastructure for the
future, and as the global economy attempts to rebound, the
need for energy sources that can meet bulk energy demands
will be more vital than ever. Increases in energy efficiency
and personal conservation are welcome, but we should not expect
them to deliver more than marginal benefits. Because energy
consumption is not flat, putting all our eggs in the efficiency
and conservation baskets will not adequately move us forward.