SUMMARY
INTRODUCTION

ENERGY MYTHS

ENVIRONMENTAL MYTHS

OPEN QUESTIONS AND OVERLOOKED REALITIES

POLICY IMPLICATIONS
APPENDIX


 

 

 

 

ENERGY MYTHS

MYTH 5: WE CAN MEET FUTURE ENERGY DEMAND THROUGH CONSERVATION AND EFFICIENCY

It is widely believed that by increasing the efficiency of automobiles, furnaces, appliances, air conditioners, and even lawn mowers, we can significantly reduce our national demand for energy. President Bush was only stating the perspective of the majority when he said as much in a 2005 speech.[9] At the President’s direction, a high-level office in the Department of Energy spent over $700 million in 2006 to advocate energy efficiency and to promote renewable energy technologies.

Approximately seven in ten respondents queried in September 2006 said that they believe that we can satisfy our national demand for energy in the future solely by employing conservation and efficiency measures. That number was hardly different at all (66 percent) when Zogby International polled Americans five months later.

A belief in the power of efficiency is widespread across political lines. More than 240 members of Congress claim membership in either the House or Senate Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Caucuses. If there is one point of agreement when it comes to energy, it’s that raising efficiency will lower consumption.

In practice, however, the evidence demonstrates otherwise. The history of the twentieth century is one of gigantic increases in efficiency—and even larger increases in consumption. The American economy has experienced massive efficiency gains: for each unit of energy, we produce more than twice as much GDP today than we did in 1950. Yet during that period of time, our national total energy consumption has tripled. Paradoxically, when it comes to energy, the more we save, the more we consume.

How and why can this be? Essentially, the cost of energy output has been spiraling downward—and lowering the cost per output of any activity will likely lead to more of it.

“Efficiency fails to curb demand because it lets more people do more, and do it faster—and more/more/faster invariably swamps all the efficiency gains,” Peter Huber and Mark Mills state in The Bottomless Well. Or, as Huber characterized this “efficiency paradox” in a 2001 Forbes column: “More efficient jet engines … cheaper tickets … more passengers … more jets in the air.” The same holds true for cars, lightbulbs, power plants, and everything else that uses energy.

Our demand for energy has increased, partially because our machines and our devices have all become much more efficient. Although efficiency advances might curtail demand in the short term for any particular activity, the long-term impact has always proven to be the opposite—and in the future this pattern will be repeated.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts that the United States economy will require about 30 more quads—or 30 percent more energy—in 2030 than it requires now. To put that gigantic figure in perspective, the entire American economy consumed a total of 32 quads in 1949.

Supplying the large amounts of raw power needed to drive economic growth is extremely different from relying on conservation and efficiency measures, which, by their nature, merely nibble on the edges of our current demand. Can further conservation and efficiency gains help Americans deal with future energy challenges? Yes, they certainly can. But can they serve as a substitute for the massive quantities of energy that our economy will require? Based on all evidence, that would seem impossible.

 

WHEN CONSERVATION IS INEFFICIENT…

As a general principle, more efficient devices are more efficient because they run faster. But faster devices get used more, deliver more miles, generate more electricity, weave more fabric, or reap more wheat…. Why are we repeatedly told that driving slowly “saves fuel”? It does, but only because it wastes time. Lowering the speed does indeed lower aerodynamic drag on the vehicle, but people drive faster for a reason—to get somewhere sooner. “Efficiency” is supposed to save fuel by doing the same job better; it is always possible to save fuel by doing less of a job, worse.

The Bottomless Well, by Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Peter Huber and Mark Mills [10]

 

 

ENERGY AND THE ENVIRONMENT: MYTHS AND FACTS

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Clarice Smith
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Manhattan Institute
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Copyright The Manhattan Institute 2007