The invention of the transistor-based logic engine, the integrated circuit, turned 60 this year. Today, humanity fabricates 1,000 times more transistors annually than the entire world grows grains of wheat and rice combined. Collectively, all those transistors consume more electricity than the state of California. The rise of transistors as “engines of innovation” emerged from Moore’s Law. And we’re still in its early days: paraphrasing Mark Twain, recent reports of the death of that Law are greatly exaggerated.
Engines, both literally and figuratively, power the modern era. Engines matter because they convert otherwise useless forms of energy into useful work. And as the energy efficiency of engines increases, markets use more of them in more varied ways, which throughout history has resulted in increased overall energy use – a.k.a. the Jevons Paradox.
Before exploring the energy realities of the microprocessor, a particular class of engine, a word about William Jevons. The British economist, who first codified the so-called “paradox” of efficiency, published a seminal paper back in 1865 entitled The Coal Question, in which he addressed a worry common at that time: that England could run out of coal, and thus undo the clear economic benefits of the steam engine. A typical solution offered then (and now) was to make engines more efficient.
Jevons, however, pointed out that improvements in engine efficiency – i.e., using less coal per unit of activity – would actually cause more, not less, overall coal consumption. Thus the paradox: “It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the [efficient] use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption … new modes of [efficiency] will lead to an increase of consumption.” Some modern economists call this the “rebound effect.” (For an eloquent exploration of this subject see a recent paper by the Breakthrough Institute’s Ted Nordhaus.)
Mark P. Mills is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a faculty fellow at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering. In 2016, he was named “Energy Writer of the Year” by the American Energy Society. Follow him on Twitter here.