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.
At the Presidents 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
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, its that raising efficiency will lower consumption.
practice, however, the evidence demonstrates otherwise. The history of the twentieth
century is one of gigantic increases in efficiencyand 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
How and why can this be? Essentially, the cost of energy output has been spiraling
downwardand 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 fasterand 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
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 oppositeand 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 quadsor 30 percent more energyin
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
. 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 reasonto 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