Economist: Inivisble Fuel
THE CHEAPEST AND cleanest energy choice of all is not to waste it. Progress on this has been striking yet the potential is still vast. Improvements in energy efficiency since the 1970s in 11 IEA member countries that keep the right kind of statistics (America, Australia, Britain, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands and Sweden) saved the equivalent of 1.4 billion tonnes of oil in 2011, worth $743 billion. This saving amounted to more than their total final consumption in that year from gas, coal or any other single fuel. And lots of money is being invested in doing even better: an estimated $310 billion-360 billion was put into energy efficiency measures worldwide in 2012, more than the supply-side investment in renewables or in generation from fossil fuels.
The “fifth fuel”, as energy efficiency is sometimes called, is the cheapest of all. A report by ACEEE, an American energy-efficiency group, reckons that the average cost of saving a kilowatt hour is 2.8 cents; the typical retail cost of one in America is 10 cents. In the electricity-using sector, saving a kilowatt hour can cost as little as one-sixth of a cent, says Mr Lovins of Rocky Mountain Institute, so payback can be measured in months, not years.
The largest single chunk of final energy consumption, 31%, is in buildings, chiefly heating and cooling. Much of that is wasted, not least because in the past architects have paid little attention to details such as the design of pipework (long, narrow pipes with lots of right angles are far more wasteful than short, fat and straight ones). Energy efficiency has been nobody’s priority: it takes time and money that architects, builders, landlords and tenants would rather spend on other things. ...
Whether we are talking about climate change or peak resources, the tendency is to project current economic dynamics - like a ratio of energy usage per unit of GDP - indefinitely into the future, and then make dire predictions of impending doom.
However, due to incessant innovation, what we learn is that such relationships are alterable. Until the early 20th century, there was a consistent linkage between the acreage in agricultural production and human population. It would have been unsustainable with level of growth the next century would bring. One hundred years later, we now see that the global demand for agricultural land has flattened – and may even be going into decline – even as the global population continues to grow, albeit at an ever slowing rate.
Similarly, energy use and GDP have typically been closely related. What we see now is that energy and GDP are decoupling. Both are increasing but energy at a slower rate than GDP. Even as both global population and living standards rise, it does not follow that energy and resource usage will inevitably follow suit. Through innovations in engineering, nanotechnology, and recycling, nearly everything we use can eventually be made of renewable materials. We have only scratched the surface of power sources that are available to us. Dramatic innovation is underway in energy storage, transmission, and usage.
There unquestionably are challenges, but predictions of impending and inescapable collapse are not justified.
For more on decoupling and a link to an excellent video by Bjorn Lomborg on the fallacy of limited growth thinking, see my post, Limits to Growth: Still Wrong, Still Influential - Bjorn Lomborg.