Building an anti-power plant


in Economics, Law, Politics, The environment

Spring buds

You often see glib statements like “The world will need 35% more energy by 2020.” Often, these seem to be based on an approach little more sophisticated than looking at the trend in energy growth over the last few years and extending it out another twelve. Thought about more intelligently, we see that there isn’t some mythical quantity of energy that will be demanded: people will simply make choices in the face of the incentives that are presented to them and their own desires. If those choices and incentives favour a lower energy mode of living, it is entirely possible that we could cut total energy use at the same time as the population and standards of living continue to rise.

Thought about that way, there are many ways in which we can change what the quantity of energy demanded will be. People don’t want X Joules to keep their houses warm and Y Joules to transport groceries. They want warm homes and convenience. These things can be done at a much lesser energy cost than is the case today. Critically, reducing demand for some quantity of energy – say the 1000 MW or so a new nuclear plant could provide – may well be cheaper than actually building the plant. Making buildings, vehicles, and factories more efficient can go a long way towards that. So too can cutting back on terrifically wasteful uses of energy. One critical route to achieving this is to change the incentives for energy producers. As long as their profits rise when they sell more and fall when they help people cut back, they will be a perverse force pushing for less sustainable lifestyles. Regulation can be re-crafted to ensure that halving a home’s energy use is a boon for the owner, the utility, and for the planet.

Thoughtlessly accepting that energy demand must continue growing shows both a lack of adequate concern about climate change and a lack of imagination. Building anti-power plants instead would mean keeping the landscape and air clearer, keeping carbon safely in the ground, and working towards a future where one’s energy use and one’s quality of life aren’t slavishly locked together.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Pedant May 1, 2008 at 9:56 am

People don’t want X Joules to keep their houses warm and Y Joules to transport groceries.

This SI unit is named after James Prescott Joule. As with all SI units whose names are derived from the proper name of a person, the first letter of its symbol is uppercase (J). When an SI unit is spelled out in English, it should always begin with a lowercase letter (joule), except for at the beginning of a sentence or in capitalized material such as a title. Note that “degree Celsius” conforms to this rule because of the “d”.

Tristan May 1, 2008 at 11:38 am

I’ve had about enough of trying to solve efficiency problems by creating incentives for energy…producers? You mean, run more powersmart commercials? The incentives need to be for energy…users.

I.E. no flat fees, all by user. Exponential price scales (each unit of power costs more than the one before it). (No not to the 2nd power, but it could something like to the 1.1, it’s not my job to figure that out).

Also, restrict the sale and use of airconditioning. Especially in businesses and retail, incredibly wasteful. Random checks could assign an efficiency score to firms and that score would determine the price they pay for power – leaving your front windows open in 38 degree weather with the air conditioner cooling the outside would result in a penalty for which you’d have to pay more for all your electricity.

The point is, you can’t tell people to be efficient “because it’s warm and fuzzy and nice” to be efficient – only because there’s a big stick which will wack them when they arn’t.

Buddy Rich May 1, 2008 at 4:18 pm

In regards to Tristans comment:

Even here in Canada it gets dangerously hot and more importantly humid in the summer months… the elderly need AC or they would die during the heat waves we sometimes get in July or August… restricting the sale of ACs would outright be dangerous.

To Milan:

I agree that a regulatory carrot, rather than a regulatory stick would be better. Time of Use pricing is a step in the right direction. It allows generators to charge more for the same thing. It combats the peak load problem but it really is only a drop in the bucket as high demand users (industry) get a free pass on it. Only 35% of power used is residential. Industry is buy far the largest user of power, and refabbing machinery to be more energy efficent isn’t cheap, certainly not in the short-term that shareholders expect for their ROI (which is probably the biggest problem with the free-market system we live in IMHO – nothing is done for the long term).

Tristan May 2, 2008 at 10:19 am

“the elderly need AC or they would die during the heat waves we sometimes get in July or August… restricting the sale of ACs would outright be dangerous.”

How is this logical? If the elderly need AC, we could restrict the sale of AC to the elderly? That could be one of the restrictions?

Also, there are real alternatives to conventional AC, which no one seems to consider. One is using cold tap water and blowing air across it, heating it. If this is done at a high enough volume of air over time, significant cooling can be achieved for no more power than the cost of running a fan (i.e. much less than an AC unit).

. May 26, 2008 at 4:22 pm

Energy efficiency
The elusive negawatt

May 8th 2008
From The Economist print edition
If energy conservation both saves money and is good for the planet, why don’t people do more of it?

. August 22, 2008 at 2:39 pm

Energy-efficient technologies are cost-effective now, but the market is set up to discourage efficiency. In most places, the more electricity a utility sells, the more money it makes. If it’s able to boost electricity demand enough, the utility is allowed to build a new power plant with a guaranteed profit. The only way a typical utility can lose money is if demand drops. So the last thing most utilities want to do is seriously push strategies that save energy, strategies that do not pollute in the first place.

If we want aggressive deployment of energy efficiency, we need to do what California did decades ago–adopt regulations so that utility company profits are not tied to how much electricity they sell. This is called “decoupling.” It also allows utilities to take a share of any energy savings they help consumers and businesses achieve.

Since California utilities can make money when their customers save money, energy-efficiency investments are on the same competitive playing field as new generation. In the past three decades, electricity consumption per capita grew 60% in the rest of the nation, while it stayed flat in high-tech, fast-growing California.1 If the entire nation had California’s much cleaner electric grid, we would cut total American global-warming pollution by more than a quarter without raising American electric bills.

. August 3, 2009 at 7:44 pm

A new report on energy efficiency from the consulting firm McKinsey found that the United States could save $1.2 trillion through 2020, by investing $520 billion in improvements like sealing leaky building ducts and replacing inefficient household appliances with new, energy-saving models.

That investment would cut the country’s projected energy use in 2020 by about 23 percent — a savings that would be “greater than the total of energy consumption of Canada,” said Ken Ostrowski, a senior partner in McKinsey’s Atlanta office, at a press event in Washington this morning. It would also more than offset the expected growth in energy use that would be expected otherwise in the United States.

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