September 01, 2010

Cultural Change and the Energy Revolution

With about 20 hours of flying time over the last 10 days, hopping between Washington and Europe for a climate change simulation that we ran in Hamburg last week, I managed to get some reading done. The Economist generally makes for good airplane reading, so I read through the last two issues. In both issues, the science and technology sections of the magazine published interesting stories on “Energy conservation” that are worth reading in full.

In the August 21st issue, the story “Watts up” identified an important hurdle to a successful energy revolution, leading with this: “People habitually underestimate their energy consumption.” The Economist was reporting the results of a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that found “that although people do grasp basic energy trends, they are decidedly hazy on the details.” According to the story, in a survey of 505 American volunteers:

Each was asked to estimate the energy consumption of nine household devices (such as stereos and air conditioners) as well as the energy savings incurred by six green activities (like swapping incandescent bulbs for fluorescent ones). The researchers then compared the volunteers’ estimates with the actual energy requirements or savings in question…   

On average, participants underestimated both energy use and energy savings by a factor of 2.8—mostly because they undervalued the requirements of large machines like heaters and clothes dryers. As a result, they failed to recognise the huge energy savings that can come from improving the efficiency of such appliances. Miscalculations like these hinder conservation efforts.

In the August 28th issue, The Economist reported that “making lighting more efficient could increase energy use, not decrease it.” The story, “Not such a bright idea,” reflects the conventional wisdom that if the cost of consuming energy were not an issue, people may not generally consider reducing energy requirements – and may even increase their energy footprint. According to The Economist, the next generation of lighting – solid-state lighting, “which use souped-up versions of the light-emitting diodes that shine from the faces of digital clocks and flash irritatingly on the front panels of audio and video equipment” – could help lower electricity bills and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from energy generation, but “not if history is any guide.”

“The consequence may not be just more light for the same amount of energy, but an actual increase in energy consumption, rather than the decrease hoped for by those promoting new forms of lighting,” The Economist suggested. According to a study published in the Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics by a team of scientists at Sandia National Laboratories, scientists “predict that the introduction of solid-state lighting could increase the consumption of light by a factor of ten within two decades.”  The Economist summed up the findings, reporting that:

To work out what solid-state lighting would do to the use of light by 2030, Dr Tsao and his colleagues made some assumptions about global economic output, the price of energy, the efficiency of the new technology and its cost. Assuming that, by 2030, solid-state lights will be about three times more efficient than fluorescent ones and that the price of electricity stays the same in real terms, the number of megalumen-hours consumed by the average person will, according to their model, rise tenfold, from 20 to 202. The amount of electricity needed to generate that light would more than double. Only if the price of electricity were to triple would the amount of electricity used to generate light start to fall by 2030.

Simply put, according to The Economist, consider this: “many outdoor areas that people would prefer to be bright at night remain dark because of the expense. If money were no object, some parts of the outdoors might be illuminated at night to be as bright as day.”

When we consider the steps needed for an energy revolution, we place quite a bit of emphasis on technological evolution – more energy efficient appliances and better, cleaner alternative energy technologies. But I think a cornerstone of an energy revolution will be us – the people. And the success or failure of that energy revolution could rely by and large on how well we the people understand energy consumption and energy science in general. You see this wisdom reflected in the energy efforts being made by the U.S. military, who – while investing in cleaner, alternative energy and more energy efficient platforms – have emphasized the importance of a cultural change within the military that reflects better understanding of energy conservation and science – and, in general, better energy practices.

For me it comes down, in part, to this: Just because a platform or product is two or three times more energy efficient, doesn’t mean we should keep it on two or three times longer than we would have kept on a less energy efficient product. The bottom line: Despite the leaps and bounds being made with next generation energy technology, how people understand that technology, the science and how they use it could matter just as much – if not more – than the technology itself. So, really, the energy revolution needs to start with all of us – we shouldn’t rely solely on new technology to get the job done for us.