My Neighbors Use Too Much Energy

From www.christmasvacationcollectibles.com

I have described in a series of posts the efforts my wife and I have made to reduce our energy footprint on a number of fronts. The motivation stems from our perception that the path we are on is not sustainable. Our response has been to pluck the low-hanging fruit, demonstrating to ourselves that we can live a “normal” life using far less energy than we once did. We are by no means gold medalists in this effort, but our savings have nonetheless been substantial. Now we shift the burden off of ourselves, and onto our neighbors. You don’t have to run faster than the bear—just faster than the other guy. In this post, I summarize our savings relative to the national average, add a few more tidbits not previously covered, put the savings in context, and muse about ways to extend the reach of such efforts.

Setting the Scale

The U.S. energy budget—accounting for nearly a quarter of the energy consumption of the entire world—is about 100 quadrillion Btu (“Quads”, or QBtu) per year. A Btu is 1055 Joules, so that 100 QBtu/yr works out to about 10,000 W per person of continuous use, 24/7 (1 Watt is one Joule per second). That’s a nice round number worth committing to memory.

The 100 QBtu number refers to primary energy—before accounting for substantial efficiency losses in power plants, car engines, etc. It’s the raw (usually thermal) energy of the resource.

At 10 kW, each person therefore racks up about 240 kWh of energy in the course of each 24 hour day. We’ll cast everything into individual—rather than household—terms, so it is helpful to know that the 309 million people in the U.S. (2010 numbers) occupy 114 million households, for an average of 2.7 people per household.

I will evaluate the degree to which I have impacted my personal energy consumption by behavioral choices, and compare this to the full scale to see what sort of total effect I am having. Most of my energy statistics are derived from the 2010 Annual Energy Review put out by the U.S. Energy Information Agency.

I should say up front that San Diego offers some energy advantage over the rest of the country in relation to heating and cooling. But as I have shown in previous posts on natural gas and electricity use, I tend to tread a factor of five lighter than comparable residences in my area.

Household Savings

Let’s first look at the items directly associated with households, or residences. These represent direct purchases of energy, and are the easiest to tally.

Electricity

U.S. residences used 4.95 QBtu of delivered electricity in 2010, at an overall efficiency of 37%. So each household claims 94 kWh of thermal input per day, corresponding to 35 kWh delivered. Per person, this is—coincidentally—also 35 kWh per day. In the second numerical coincidence of the paragraph, residences grabbed 37% of the total share of electricity in 2010.

Our own household use of utility electricity over the last year (750 kWh) averages 1.0 kWh per day per person, requiring 2.8 kWh of thermal energy each day.

So count me in for a daily 32 kWh of savings over the American average.

Natural Gas

Man, the numerical coincidences just don’t stop! U.S. Residences used 4.95 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in 2010, or 20.5% of the total amount consumed. One hundred cubic feet delivers 1.02 Therms of energy, converting to 29.9 kWh. This makes for a daily 35 kWh per household, or 13 kWh per day per person.

Our household’s annual use of natural gas (66 Therms) works out to 2.6 kWh per day for each of us.

Add another 10 kWh of daily savings to the pile.

Don’t Touch My Shower!

As an aside, our main route to reducing natural gas usage has been by turning our thermostat down to 55°F (12°C), as described earlier. But the gas consumption in our house shot up in the Fall of 2010 when we had a house-sitter. It appears that this was not in the form of home heating, but rather in the form of hot water use. The fact that one person could more than double the gas consumption of two people in the hot water domain is noteworthy. In my quest to reduce energy, I have discovered that:

  1. I only need to shower about 3 times a week without anybody (including myself) noticing ill effect;
  2. I don’t need running water for much of the time I am in the shower;
  3. I don’t need tremendous flow;
  4. I don’t need piping hot water (just warm will do—especially in summer); and
  5. showers need not take very long, given focused effort.

Showers in our house routinely use something like 5 gallons of water (not all of this from the hot water heater, given mixing), and I know I could cut even this down by a lot if needed.

When I have queried students in energy/environment classes at UCSD about which of the five modifications above they would accept in their own lives, including a “none of the above” option, “none of the above” was the overwhelming favorite. When removing this option, I found that students would reluctantly acquiesce to showering less frequently—but few were willing to modify the other parameters of the experience. The message was clear: “Don’t mess with my shower habits—I like my showers long and hot, with water running full-blast all the time, even when I step aside and let it hit the floor while soaping up.” The barriers to personal change are rigid.

Personal Transportation

The average American household uses about 1050 gallons of gasoline each year to move their personal vehicles around. At 36.6 kWh per gallon, this comes to 105 kWh/day of energy per household, or 39 kWh/day per person.

In my household, we average 400 gallons of gasoline per year over the last four years, including a few atypical cross-country trips. This puts us at 20 kWh/day each. Even though most of this happens under my wife’s right foot, it is only fair that we split it evenly. Joint bank account, joint taxes, joint gasoline.

Compared to the 39 kWh/day average, I collect another 19 kWh per day of personal energy savings.

Fuel Oil & Propane

The only other major energy resources households may consume are fuel oil for heating and liquid propane mostly for rural applications. The U.S. used 0.55 million barrels per day of fuel oil in 2010, calculating to 2.7 kWh per person per day of energy expenditure.  Propane accounts for 1.139 million barrels per day of oil equivalent, resulting in 5.7 kWh/day.

Because I don’t take part in either of these resource, I’ll add 8.4 kWh to my pile of daily savings.

Accumulation of Household Energy

The typical American directly uses 95 kWh/day of energy supply in residential/personal applications. For myself, these same sources total 25 kWh/day (20 of which comes from gasoline!). Residentially speaking, then, I operate at 27% of the national average. Personal transportation is my undoing, for sure—even if it is half the national average.

Outside the Home

Recall that the average American lays claim to 10 kW of continuous power, or 240 kWh per day. Yet in the home, we only accumulated 95 kWh in our sum. That’s just shy of 40%, of the total. So if I did nothing else on the energy saving front, I would have to swallow my citizen’s claim to the remaining 145 kWh/day, bringing my total to 170 kWh/day, and therefore 71% of the average. That’s still a decent reduction, but not as dramatic as I would like.

What is all this other activity, and why should I have to lay claim to it?

Well, the bulk of our energy expenditures are not under our direct control, but rather support the economy in which we participate. Industries mine raw materials, transport them to factories, turn them into consumer goods, and ship them to stores—every step demanding energy, including the stores themselves. The government upon which we rely consumes energy to conduct its business, provide defense, and build/maintain infrastructure. Much of the demand is structural, determined by collective choices. Our jobs are a part of this collective demand, generally based on priorities within our society (although these priorities are skewed by aggressive advertising campaigns). As individuals, our control over such factors tends to be weak. But we’re all in the boat together, so we can’t easily release ourselves from claims to energy consumption outside of our personal realms.

We can, however, influence matters as consumers—in some domains more directly than in others. Depending on what and how much we buy, where and how often we travel, and what we do for entertainment, we can indeed shed responsibility for some portion of energy expenditures in the wider world. We can also try to steer society into less consumptive modes of operation. (See the excellent Story of Stuff video.)

Dietary Savings

For example, the U.S. spends about 11% of its total energy flow on the business of food (outside of refrigeration and cooking expenditures in the home). That’s about 27 kWh/day per person. Some foods are more energy-intensive than others. The way our food industry has evolved, we spend ten times as much energy producing our food as that same food provides to our bodies. Meats are particularly energy-costly, given the methods of meat production that prevail today. By modifying dietary choices so that meat is an occasional treat (or garnish) rather than a staple, we can change the amount of energy invested in food by something like a factor of two. I estimate my own dietary choices to save something like 10 kWh/day on my behalf.

Consumer Goods

There are two quick-and-dirty methods for estimating the energy content of consumer goods. One simple way is to guess that the energy value is approximately equal to the equivalent weight (or mass) of the product in the form of gasoline—working out to about 40 MJ/kg, or about 11 kWh/kg. This is a very approximate scheme, but can sometimes be helpful if you have no other handle on the problem. It works well for most metals and plastics (although aluminum is over 4× more), but many building materials (glorified dirt/rock) come in much lower. Intricate items, like automobiles, laptops, and iGadgets may take at least an order-of-magnitude more energy than the gasoline-weight-equivalent estimate.

The other—arguably more reliable—handle we can employ is to note that energy accounts for something in the neighborhood of 5–10% of GDP (on the higher end, recently). So we can divide the purchase price of an item by ten, and relate this to the cost of industrial energy (say $0.05/kWh) to guess that each dollar spent on an item requires 2 kWh of energy investment. Again, it’s not a universal law, but might get you in the ballpark.

Let’s test this on a few cases. A new car might have a mass of 1000 kg and cost $25,000. The two methods would suggest an energy cost of 11,000 kWh and 50,000 kWh, respectively. Because it is an intricate device, we should lean toward the higher number (one study suggests 75,000 kWh is about right). A large flat-panel television may have a mass of 20 kg and cost $1000. We’d compute 220 kWh and 2000 kWh for the two methods, again favoring the higher price. How about a ladder from Home Depot: mass of 15 kg, costing $60. We get 165 kWh and 120 kWh for the two methods, respectively. The two estimates reach parity when the item costs $5.5/kg, or about $2.50/lb.

The whole point of these estimates is that we can reduce our energy footprint by deciding to buy less stuff. Make things last longer. Repair when possible. Forgo some pleasures. Adopt a gift-draw for occasions like Christmas, rather than buying something for everyone. For every $1000 not spent on a consumer purchase, you’ll save about 2000 kWh. So each $1000/year you don’t spend turns into about 5 kWh/day that you do not incur.

It is hard to assess something you don’t do. I can’t seem to find the receipts for all those things I did not purchase! But I know my energy-influenced attitudes have resulted in less material expenditure than I witness in my peers. I’m going to guess I get another 10 kWh/day out of this mode, at least.

Air Travel

Out of the total petroleum flow, 1.42 million barrels per day went to jet fuel in 2010 in the U.S. Each person’s share works out to 7 kWh/day, amounting to about 3000 air miles per year (figured at 40 passenger-miles per gallon). This is approximately what I rack up for personal travel (mostly due to familial dispersion), so I get no points on this front. In fact, considering that much of the aggregate is for business rather than personal travel, and I lump this into the collective societal mode, perhaps I should take a 10 kWh/day hit for the personal travel I do perform.

The Net Effect

I can likely justify shaving off a bit more in the way of energy expenditures tied to personal choices. My energy-conscious mentality carries over into reducing energy demands imposed by my profession. So I could easily believe that I am down to 150 kWh/day by my choices and actions. That’s 63% of the average. I’d like to be able to claim I’m at 50%, but I probably can’t stretch that far, and this is an arbitrary target anyway.

To reiterate: the bulk of energy expenditure on our behalves is beyond our direct and immediate control. We make choices as a collective that influence us all. I can’t deny my share of that responsibility, even if I don’t agree with all the choices we make.

Meanwhile, I can at least exercise substantial control of my personal share (for which I operate at about a quarter of the average). And I can share these concepts with a broader audience and maybe have some indirect impact that way. Hmmm. Will I get credit, or will you, for any energy savings you employ as a result of reading Do the Math? No question: it belongs to you!

I can also advocate for a society that is less dependent on energy-intensive activities. When we collectively realize that we need to invest in a new energy infrastructure, we will need a fresh supply of energy to pull it off—threatening to tip us into the Energy Trap. Shaving personal energy use could be a potent tool.

In the end, it’s more important for me to know that we can trim energy use by a large factor while still engaging in important pursuits than it is that we all do reduce our energy right now. Of course, immediate widespread reduction would be my preference, being the most conservative approach to the possible energy precipice ahead. We could let off the gas and take stock of our future rather than barrel ahead under the assumption that our energy resources are guaranteed. Being wrong on the cornucopian gamble could be far more ruinous than easing off ahead of time.

Can I Blame the Neighbors?

This brings me to tactics. How might we accomplish a ramp-down in energy, in a time of need? Even if just on the household front, I have demonstrated that it’s possible to reduce one’s total energy share by significant amounts (of order 30%) without even touching the aggregate system. That’s more than chump-change.

But how does this sort of thing grow large enough to have an impact? How would we achieve buy-in? No one wants to feel like they are part of the problem. We instinctively become defensive. And my standing here parading my own accomplishments in this realm may in fact have a souring effect on people: “look at this goodie-two-shoes, boasting of his righteous ways.” So I have an idea that, admittedly, is not all that well thought out yet.

Rather than tell people that they use too much energy (which they will A: not want to hear; B: deny; or C: rationalize), maybe we can make the case that their neighbors use too much energy. People are much less likely to object to that. They may not like the neighbors all that much anyway. But if enough people are hearing this message, everyone is someone’s neighbor. And to the extent that people are willing to buy the message, they internalize a value for lowering energy without ever feeling personally challenged. Get it? We are the neighbors, but we never feel that way.

So if we start noticing instances of neighbors using more energy than we think they should, we’re more likely to tone down similar activities that we might otherwise do. Of course this scheme only works if the larger context suggests energy scarcity. We’re not there right now. But perhaps we are inching (ahem, centimetering) our way toward such a condition.

In much the same way, racism is well-understood today to be shameful in today’s America.  Even those who rail against political correctness know better than to embrace openly racist attitudes.  Such a values shift is possible in attitudes toward wasteful energy use as well.

I’m Not Kidding, BTW…

For what it’s worth, the electricity meters on my street were all replaced with digital meters at the same time. A number of them are easily visible from the sidewalk. A quick walk-through confirmed that our utility electricity usage tends to be 4–14 times lower than our cohort, 9× being typical. So my assertion that the neighbors use too much energy is more than hypothetical, in my case. About half of this factor comes from my hobby photovoltaic setup, but even without this, we’re looking at substantial reduction.

A Word on Energy vs. Growth

Before signing off, I should comment that part of the message in this post validates the conflict between energy reduction and economic growth—which has been the focus of a number of Do the Math posts. Part of the recommended strategy is to buy less stuff and do less stuff as a way to cut back on energy. This would have a recessionary influence on the economy: slowing, stalling, or even reversing growth.

In our imaginations, we can concoct economic exchanges that involve little energy (Fred pays Ralph to sing a song; I pay Ralph not to sing; money is exchanged, nothing is done, little energy is exerted), but the fact is that we place too much value the energy-intensive things for them to melt to economic insignificance relative to the frivolous stuff. Someone may be willing to pay an obscene amount of money for a Picasso painting involving negligible energy, but not if their basic energy needs are as yet unmet (e.g., sitting in a cold or hot shack with inadequate food, no car, and no computer).

The point is that our economy is tied at the hip to energy. We can’t expect to lower substantially the rate of energy use (especially not arbitrarily low) and keep our economy humming. Likewise, in a steady energy scenario, we cannot expect indefinite economic growth (even if defined as utility, which runs into subjective ambiguity and diminishing returns before very long). Practically all of the methods I have used to scale back energy use have resulted in fewer dollars spent in the economy. You can see why my reduction recommendations will encounter stiff headwinds, suggesting that energy reduction is unlikely to be voluntary—more likely being forced on us by physical realities. The dream case is that we don’t have to make this choice, because our energy supply will never be unable to satisfy demand/desire. It’s a good dream. I could root for it, but also realize that we can’t always get what we want in this physical world.

Note to readers: I will be moving to a predominantly bi-weekly schedule for Do the Math posts starting now. I never would have guessed that I could keep up a weekly pace for very long on top of my primary duties, but have done so for the better part of a year. My main message is more-or-less complete, and that’s all I have to say about that.

56 thoughts on “My Neighbors Use Too Much Energy

  1. Your neighbours burn, and have burned on their behalf, too much carbon, I agree.

    But how to stop them? Tax fossil carbon? It is already heavily taxed, and in each country the levels of taxation seem to be aimed at maximizing the government’s fossil fuel profit. So in Europe, where populations are denser, motor fuel tax rates are much higher, while in North America, similar revenues can be gained at lower rates.

    How to stop them without punishing them (as if one could)? Hansen’s fee-and-dividend idea, if applied to the large existing fees just as much as to any future, designated-as-such carbon taxes, would help in that their excesses would no longer be pleasing to government.

    • Err, the US barely taxes fossil carbon at all. Gas taxes haven’t increased since 1993, so are down 1/3 counting inflation, and no long even pay for highway costs, let alone the social costs of pollution.

  2. Overt racism was suppressed with coordinated political effort. It wasn’t enough to nicely ask individual racists to let black people attend the same schools as their own children and share their water fountains. It took determined effort by activists, voters, and all three branches of government. Likewise, large scale energy patterns won’t change in advance of crisis without coordinated political effort: pressure groups mobilizing voter blocs for EPA regulations, more demanding fuel economy standards, better building codes, regulatory and financial support for non-fossil energy sources, and so on. You have proved that substantial energy reductions are possible while still enjoying a modern life style; your students have proven that you won’t have enough imitators without outside constraints. We can wait for the outside constraint to take the form of a severe, prolonged energy crisis, or promote collective action to preempt the crisis. That means attracting the listening minority of your neighbors, then getting government action to drag along the majority who have no spontaneous interest in better insulation or alternatives to driving.

  3. I’m not sure how this post works with previous posts. Let’s say we all go even further than you, the committed energy-reducer, and reduce our energy use by 50%. Great; we’ve stalled the apocalypse by 25 years at the 2.9% energy growth rate in Galactic-Scale Energy. That seems more like a rounding error than a paradigm shift.

    Also, it seems entirely counterproductive to encourage people to spend less money in the absolute sense. The technologies that allow people to save energy (LED lights, solar, etc) are usually very capital-intensive. So, we could spend a little less money and have a lower standard of living, or we could spend a lot more money and have a higher standard of living while maintaining the same energy footprint. Doesn’t the latter seem like the better solution? If so, how about encouraging people to spend more money to reduce energy rather than discouraging them from spending money in general? Better yet, let’s just price in energy externalities (tinyurl.com/89wnpv2) and let people make their own trade offs without need energy-guilt, or speculate on future oil prices by buying it now (thus increasing its price and reducing demand) and selling it many years later when it can be used to help escape the energy trap.

    • My spending less money on direct purchases of coal, oil, and gas (or electricity produced thereof) does little to impede technological progress. I do buy LED lights and other energy efficient things. So that market force can still work. I also participate in basic research professionally. I hope we can still do the important things, even under a lighter energy footprint. It’s a re-prioritization.

      The “spend our way out of the problem” solution strikes me as being like trying to keep the plummeting plane from hitting the ground by frantically digging a hole to allow the plane to stay in the “air.” I would rather arrest the plane’s descent than say there is nothing wrong with its speed. Likewise, I see a serious conflict allowing growth to continue in a finite world. Even if we held steady at this rate, it’s not clear that the ecosystem can stomach us much longer.

      We have control, if we want to exercise it. But spending more is a bigger, high-stakes gamble than slowing down. And physical constraints may play a significant role in this asymmetric decision.

      • The key thing I’m saying is that I don’t see a link between “reduce your energy footprint by 30%” and “reduce your energy usage growth by 2.9% per year”. Based on Galactic-Scale Energy, the latter is important and the former is nearly irrelevant. Yet this article focuses on the former as if it would make a big difference in solving the problem. If growth is the descent rate of the plane and current energy usage level is altitude, then actually this post is suggesting that digging a hole will address the problem. Actually, digging a hole will do nothing and leveling the plane without digging a hole would be just fine (if one grants your physically-impossible economic growth hypothesis).

        • The link between the two is so extreme that it is perhaps easy to overlook. Clearly 2.9% energy growth runs into serious physical limitations.

          So I say stop the growth.

          But I want to do even more than just that: I want to reduce even today’s level of energy expenditure. So rather than see a 30% reduction as inconsequentially small compared to galactic scale energy, I’m saying that we should not only arrest growth, but slow down as well. Not slowing down the 2.9% rate by 30%, but actually turning it negative for a time: contraction. I’d say that makes a pretty big difference compared to the indefinite growth scenario.

  4. There’s this thing called politics. It determines the nature of our collective choices, and thereby, our infrastructures and our energy-supply and energy-demand policies. Why do you talk like it doesn’t exist? I realize it’s presently unresponsive and inaccessible, but it is the only hope. Personal gestures are personal gestures.

    • Indeed, there are politics. Politics is the art of the willing. It allows us to bring about things we already collectively want. If politicians today were bold enough to do what I’m recommending, they’d be voted out before they knew what was happening.

      Our only hope when it comes to voluntary (or politically imposed) energy reduction is to build a groundswell of people who actually want to see that happen. So if people are not willing to do it in their own lives where they have personal control, what reason could you possibly have to believe politicians could institute such measures? Personal gestures are the way we prove we’re serious about something, willing to do more than talk. If we can’t do that, politicians won’t touch it, and I fear that only drastic economic hardship can reign us in.

      • “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”. It can be easier to abide by restrictions if imposed. It’d be easier to skip a shower if everyone else is doing it, rather than standing out as the smelly one.

        People don’t have to donate to the government to advocate for higher taxes.

        • This is like “keeping up with the Joneses” in a use less mentality.

          Keeping down with the Joneses?

          If the collective will of the people is to use less personally and make that the “cool” thing to do, then we as people would shift those views onto the government.

      • The political has to be a part. So does the personal, the individual who leads first by example. Witness the scorn Mr Gore has received on account of his palatial digs. An important part of leading by example regarding reducing one’s resource consumption is to enjoy oneself! Gandhi’s austere lifestyle helped immensely… in India. I doubt if it would do much good to much of any cause here in the US.

        When I married (early 1960’s) a stunning beauty of the swarthy persuasion, occupancy in the pews on one side of the aisle was painfully sparse. And not until the mid-1970’s did I dare put family photos on my desk at work (in the automotive industry, in the «greater» Detroit area). But my family had great fun, which we didn’t keep secret; my kids did spectacularly well in school, in sports, etc. None of us are particularly wealthy, compared to others in the family, but everybody is now proud to be family. (Let me assure everybody that we did not get married or have kids to advance civil rights or to make a point, or because we were self-hating members of our ethnicities…)

        Folks who enlivened lively parties while consuming at most modest quantities of C₂H₅OH have done more to minimize heavy (anti-)social drinking and related abuse than carding, breathalyzer tests etc (not that these are not necessary too). When my son got married, it was in our family church; the reception was in the social hall in the annex where folks gather for coffee after Sunday worship. Some of the bridal couple’s Ivy League classmates and Silicon Valley co-workers asked them why this, when they could have had it in Phuket, the Caribbean, etc. But that reception was a wowser of a party, and many of their friends (and their kids!) now tie their knots in less extravagant settings.

        So flaunt your low-energy lifestyle! Paraphrase Cornelia pointing to Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, and say, “These are my joules!”

      • I agree that the current status quo political system is inaccessible and ineffective, and also that we need people who are willing to make personal changes in their lives before anything meaningful will happen (we need walk, not talk).

        But we can’t rely on the personal lifestyle choices of individuals to save the world. That groundswell you mentioned – we need it, but we need a groundswell of people who both make decisions in their personal lives AND organize in a real way. People need to engage, with force, with the systems that are destroying us. This takes organization, leadership, massive movements of people.

        There is no win scenario for this planet that only involves groups of people quietly making individual decisions that only impact their own lives. I’m not against individual lifestyle decisions, I’m against people doing so and *thinking that that is all that is required to change the world.*

        I also do think that this forceful & political engagement with destructive systems and ways of being is something that can/will/is starting small and will grow – hopefully virally. It’s something that a lot of people are ready for, or almost ready for, I think, and to be honest I see it as one of our few hopes.

      • Another thought: personally, I don’t *want* to use less energy, or at least not by enjoying fewer goods. I *like* my long hot showers, meat, halogen lamps, not breathing 55 F air in the winter, and long distance travel (which I want to do more of, not less.)

        However, I’m more than happy to pay higher prices for these goods (already do, in organic greens and grass-fed meat, and paying rent in a pedestrian/transit city.) If the sustainable price turns out to be high enough, then I’d consider using less. But wanting complete/fair/sustainable pricing is the primary desire, reduction is secondary and if it turns out the current lifestyle is unsustainable.

  5. Why do you want to reduce energy consumption from current level? I can understand that growth is unsustainable, but are you arguing that the level is unsustainable as well? That seems much more unlikely to me… I would have thought we can sustain current energy usage through renewable sources. Do you disagree? I think your message would be much more palatable that way. Reducing all energy consumption today by 10%-20% would possibly cause 20% unemployment. I don’t think that’s a good suggestion.

    Also energy production capacity has been built already. As more and more people start behaving as you suggest, capacity will sit idle, prices will collapse and someone will be tempted to use that capacity. I guess in the medium term it would remove incentive to replace such capacity, but we are talking about 25-50 years, power plant are long lived assets.

    Prices are the most powerful lever you can use. If you fear that prices will not rise fast enough to support investment in alternative energy, you should argue for taxes on fossil fuels. Such taxes would be economically efficient and they would certainly influence behaviour. They would be quite regressive though…

    • Indeed, I think it is unclear whether we can maintain the current level. Keep in mind that we have seen the world through the lens of growing use of fossil fuel energy. We do not actually know what the world looks like when those begin to decline, globally. The alternatives tend to have shortcomings that may in fact make the future a lower-energy place. The main point is that we do not know. There are reasons to worry. The Energy Trap awaits those who do not have excess energy available for building a new energy infrastructure. So I think reducing energy is a prudent, conservative reaction that need not interfere with continuation of the important stuff.

      • My second point above is that you cannot reduce consumption. Energy capacity generation is already built. Unless you tax it, it will be used. If a significant part of the population reduces consumption, prices will go down and the rest will consume more energy. Argue for taxes and you have a credible recipe.

        I don’t think the energy trap is economically realistic. It’s like arguing that we risk running out of grain seeds since we could decide to eat them (isn’t the return on agriculture more or less similar to renewable energy?). As long as you allow capital accumulation, there will be people who will be willing to limit consumption in order to more in the future. We had to grapple with these kind of problem since the beginning of time. I don’t think that argument is convincing at all.

        • As fossil fuel resources decline, the fact that there are plants and cars built to consume the energy does not mean that steady consumption is a given. I see the bottleneck being in the form of resources, rather than on the built power plants, etc.

          • Obviously if there is no more oil, capacity will go down and so consumption. But at that point, prices will already be much higher and people will adopt your suggestions without any need for an external input.

            You are trying to influence behaviour before fossil fuel runs out. So my objection still stand I think. Are you against energy consumption taxes? If so why?

            I honestly don’t see the advantage in reducing consumption. If you believe the world economy is not capable of managing the transition from fossil fuels to alternative sources of energy, delaying when that transition happens, will not make much of a difference (unless you care about your children but not your grandchildren).

            The energy trap is basically a fear that there is not enough investment in alternative energy sources. I am not sure that fear is justified, but reducing consumption will not spur investment in alternatives for sure. Most likely it will slow it down, as it will make the need for alternative sources much less urgent.

            There is only one possible reason in a market economy for such investment to be done: high energy prices. Those prices can either be natural (because of capacity shortages) or artificial (because of fossil fuel taxes). This is not as good a law as thermodynamics, but it’s as close as you can get in a complex field as economics.

            Whatever happens all oil, coal and gas will be burned. It will run out as you say.

          • “delaying when that transition happens, will not make much of a difference”

            Well, delay allows for more time to convince people of a problem.

          • Alessandro you make some good points and I agree that simply reducing energy use by itself would not do anything to solve the problem, as it would only reduce prices and provide an incentive for someone else to use it rather than switch to renewables. However, we seem to be at Peak Oil, and the flat global oil production over the last 7 years has been in the face of about a tripling of price. So we are getting our high prices after all.

            But I don’t follow your thoughts that the energy trap is not something to be concerned about. One issue is that it requires fossil fuels to manufacture renewables, so it’s not like renewables are going to become cheaper as oil price goes up. They may rise more slowly than oil, and therefore become more attractive than oil, but they will increase in absolute price as oil disappears (unless some technological breakthrough is made in artificial photosynthesis or solar panels, but it would not be prudent to rely on such).

            One issue with the energy trap is that in the face of declining energy availability, social and economic order will be collapsing and it will be more difficult to manufacture things than today. And the problem will be that there won’t be an opportunity for capital accumulation because we will be running out of capital! People will be more concerned about survival than saving. In this respect it is totally unlike anything since the beginning of time because up until now our economies were always operating with in a realm of increasing capital accumulation opportunities, brought about by continually increasing energy supplies from fossil fuels. We are moving into uncharted territory.

          • Putting external costs aside (and why should we put them aside? They are much more pressing than peak coal, maybe peak oil too, let alone the absurdities that result from projecting energy growth forward a few centuries, … but never mind all that.), I think the place where it makes sense to anticipate the market rather than react to current prices is durable capital — think cars, houses, transit infrastructure. The market will undervalue these things because people react to today’s gas prices, not tomorrow’s, but if prices go up in the future these things won’t just be replaced overnight. Buying a fuel efficient new car even when it’s not the most economical choice means that car companies are incentivized to push the envelope and produce better cars today, and it means tomorrow there will be fuel efficient used cars available.

  6. “Someone may be willing to pay an obscene amount of money for a Picasso painting involving negligible energy, but not if their basic energy needs are as yet unmet (e.g., sitting in a cold or hot shack with inadequate food, no car, and no computer).”

    My main point with that is that “economic growth” is a rigged game. Because the economists and politicians have tied it to the growth of imaginary currency units, it can go on growing forever, or at least until the civilization tracking it falls apart.

    But you just pointed out in this post that we have along way we can reduce our energy use before we need to worry about that. Yes, we certainly need to reduce our energy use – no argument there. But since most of what we use today is wasted, we can save quite a bit before civilization is really in jeopardy.

    OTOH, the energy trap is a real, serious problem. It’s like Stuart Staniford’s fermenting the food supply problem, but on a larger scale. What we need is a politically viable way to prevent getting caught in that trap. I’d vote for a constantly increasing carbon tax, but I think we need some major climate disaster before people will accept that. Come to think of it, there’s a climate trap in there too.

    I also wanted to thank you for writing this series. It’s been very informative having someone thoroughly walk through the numbers to see where our fossil fuel supply leads. It’s nice to have another confirmation that peak oil and EROEI are real issues. I appreciate an occasional reminder that my wife and I biking to work is worth putting up with all the dirtbags on the road, and I’m not completely wasting my family’s time trying to save energy. And thanks for being a good neighbor too! (Even if you are in another part of the country.)

    • Yes congrats Tom on providing such a well researched series of articles each week.

      KJM, in reading your comment I’m reminded of an Op-Ed piece I read here in the Vancouver Sun a couple years ago arguing that we should not be concerned about a die-off or Malthusian collapse because we haven’t yet had any evidence of one…

  7. “””Practically all of the methods I have used to scale back energy use have resulted in fewer dollars spent in the economy.”””

    Unless those dollars saved are going under the mattress, fear not as they are still in the economy. The fewer dollars you spent on energy consumption or on ‘stuff’ previously considered superfluous is not either A) spent in other ways (that PV array, or that IR camera? another family trip?), or B) saved in the bank or in securities, where it is in turn invested in PV, IR camera, or air travel companies, etc.

    • Yes that’s deflation — unemployment — crashing stock indices — even greater government deficits — basically, the ponzi scheme monetary system coming undone. Hence the reason why the western world will not voluntarily reduce consumption of stuff until forced to when the whole system collapses.

  8. You’re not going to get people to stop using a vital, abundant, and cheap resource as long as it remains abundant and cheap. Sorry. Might as well tell people that they’re breathing too much air.

    What would have an immediate and substantial effect would be for the electric utilities to pay retail rates to households for PV surpluses. Overnight, you’d have people putting in oversized PV arrays and gladly selling that energy to their profligate neighbors. Which would you rather have: a $200 / month electricity bill, or no electricity bill and $100 / month deposited into your bank account from the utility? What if you could spend a bit on attic insulation and window sealing and efficient bulbs and what-not and add another $20 / month to what the utility pays you?

    It wouldn’t take very long for people to shift their financial investments into the such a very profitable venture, and we’d solve an amazing number of our societal woes in record time.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Yes, it’s an extroadinarilly effective mechanism and is known as a “Feed-in Tarrif” (FiT) in many parts of the world. It has been used to great effect particularly in Germany.

      Unfortunately, most FiT’s in many countries are being wound back or scrapped in partly in response to aggressive lobbying by vested interests and rapidly falling PV prices and partly because of political idealism. This is certainly true in Australia.

      As PV prices continue to fall and look more and more viable it is interesting to watch the large centralised supply industries come up with ever more inventive reasons to argue against the rollout of decentralised renewables.

      The following link provides a good example of the cut and thrust in the Australian electricity market.

      http://www.climatespectator.com.au/commentary/why-big-energy-wants-kill-lret

  9. Very interesting.

    But I still insist on focusing on exergy analysis, which is far more realistic than simple energy accounting.

    For example: very interesting exergy (and so energy) savings could be achieved by installing combined heat and power systems (yes, that’s not suitable in San Diego, but think in more cold climates). The overall efficiency of 37% in US electricty system could be “magically” turned into 99% with CHP. No more waste heat!

    PS: Imagine living near a Google datacenter: heat for free in winters! lol

    • I was just pondering that same idea. They say that the fridge uses the most electricity on average. Thus the waste heat should somehow be radiated into good use…
      The solar fridge/water heater “kit”…
      Because anything non solar would probably not sell anyways.

  10. I’m struck that there are a lot of low-tech low (non-solar) energy solutions for heating and cooling; not just houses, but food too. Zeer pots, botijos, swamp coolers, basement pool… all of which depend on fairly arid climates for evaporative cooling. Plus the high thermal mass of houses interacting with sunny days and cool nights.

    Most of the human race lives in humid climates, with hot sticky summer nights, and possibly cold snowy winters.

  11. We’ll run into a global warming trap long before we run into an energy trap. Honestly, and energy trap wouldn’t be a huge problem. When fossil fuels get more scarce they will start increasing in price. As that happens, more money will got to efficiency, wind and solar. The energy trap would make that more of a crunch. Global warming, on the other hand, would devastate us.

    Using less energy doesn’t have to mean do less:

    http://is.gd/14tvZW

    “If all Americans had the same per capita electricity demand as Californians, we would cut electricity consumption 40%. And if all of America adopted the same energy efficiency policies that California is now putting in place, the country would never have to build another power plant. Energy efficiency is THE core climate solution.”

    Germany is planning to be running on 80% renewables by 2050. If we aggressively pushed renewables and efficiency, we wouldn’t have to change our lives much. If we don’t, well, I think the destruction of the environment will probably be the main issue we’d have to deal with.

    • He hand-waves the intermittency problems of renewables and seems to suggest we’ll have more energy available in the future than we do today. He’s right that efficiency can save a lot, but seems to think it will happen willingly – I don’t have that kind of faith in my fellow Americans. LED bulbs save money in the long run right now, and yet there is no shortage of people yelling “socialism” because of the phaseout of incandescents. Our road to more efficient society will be a bumpy one.

  12. Regarding efficiency, while I also try to improve mine, I can’t help but put these gains in the context of population growth, mainly driven by having read Limits To Growth.

    Gaining a few percent in efficiency, or even factors of two or ten seem to disappear in the face of exponential (or even slower) population growth.

    When I talk about population growth, people point out the populations in some countries are declining. Still the overall population is increasing. I can imagine a future where everyone’s consumption balanced what we receive from the sun, but I can also imagine boom and bust cycles of the overshooting that balance and recovering. I don’t know of mechanisms to achieve the former and I don’t know how to avoid the latter.

    I’d love to see a quantitative approach. Do you plan to analyze and write on population growth? Emotions can run intense on children and families, so I for one would welcome your non-judgmental approach of simply measuring effects without telling people what to do.

    Some big questions to me seem
    1. Is the population leveling off or growing?
    2. How much is the population consuming (mainly of energy, but whatever other resources we need that energy can’t provide), relative to supplies?
    3. If we overshoot the supply, can we reduce our consumption to below that amount and keep it there?
    4. What are the consequences if we can’t? (not sure this one would fit in your blog)

    There’s an underlying question of what’s the point of improving efficiency if we can’t stop population growth from causing us to overshoot our supplies. On the one hand, I can’t think of an example of humans cooperating to do something like cap its population. On the other hand, I suspect nature will do it for us if we don’t, so it seems worth trying.

    Thanks,

    Josh

    • Population is certainly a key aspect to our future path, and I have not yet taken a head-on look at it.

      It’s a topic that is not short of opinions, so rather than permit a spiral off topic on this post, I’ll ask that folks refrain until I do write about the topic. I don’t have the time/energy to moderate two threads at once, unfortunately.

      I let the camel poke its nose under the tent in part because another comment from Josh (essentially a note to me) pointed out that he has a blog that may be worth checking out: http://joshuaspodek.com/

      Maybe Josh will write a population post sooner than I’ll get to one…

  13. [lengthy comment shortened by moderator: still lengthy!]

    We can’t expect to lower substantially the rate of energy use (especially not arbitrarily low) and keep our economy humming. Likewise, in a steady energy scenario, we cannot expect indefinite economic growth (even if defined as utility, which runs into subjective ambiguity and diminishing returns before very long).

    So utility runs into subjective ambiguity problems … in the future? No, it’s always been there, and I’d imagine if it can be rigorously defined at all it can be rigorously defined in ways that it grows forever and in ways that it asymptotically approaches a maximum value. (Are you arguing that it will, in fact, stop and maybe reverse a little? I don’t think you’ve presented any argument for that, though I suppose it could.)

    As for nominal growth, that can grow exponentially forever if necessary. But on to measurable growth, as real GDP per capita. Let’s group the possibilities into 4 categories: 1) hard stop — the economy grows until a maximum value is hit, then stops and perhaps reverses 2) bounded growth — the economy asymptotically approaches a maximum value, but never entirely stops growing 3) unbounded sub-exponential — there is no limit it won’t pass, but the percentage growth rate asymptotically approaches zero, and 4) continued exponential growth.

    Obviously a hard stop happens before the sun swallows the Earth, but we’re considering the next few centuries/millenia. You made a strong argument for at most bounded growth in your discussion with the economist, but there is one step that didn’t seem airtight to me:

    If the flow of energy is fixed, but we posit continued economic growth, then GDP continues to grow while energy remains at a fixed scale. This means that energy—a physically-constrained resource, mind—must become arbitrarily cheap as GDP continues to grow and leave energy in the dust.

    First thing that bugged me about this is that you’ve spent all this time building the case for limits to energy, and then you pull out an argument that has nothing to do with energy in particular. Compare: “If the amount of silver is fixed, but we posit continued economic growth, the GDP continues to grow while silver remains at a fixed scale. This means that silver — a physically-constrained resource, mind — must become arbitrarily cheap as GDP continues to grow and leave silver in the dust.” I find it implausible that silver would become arbitrarily cheap. But that means either you’re getting something wrong at this step, or that your well argued case for the end of energy growth is entirely superfluous to the end of GDP growth argument. Personally, I doubt that silver presents any serious constraint on economic growth. [...]

    I remain unconvinced for now. My personal suspicion is that we are moving into the sub-exponential growth phase some time between now and a few centuries from now. While innovation can drive growth, I doubt innovation alone can drive exponential growth long term. Exponential growth happens when growth is proportional to what it is that is growing; the more factories you have, the more equipment you can produce, which you can use to build more factories; the more energy you have the more solar panels you can produce, and so on. At some point other constraints will prevent these from growing exponentially. And innovation may not be constrained, but it isn’t obvious to me why new innovation would grow proportionally to cumulative innovation.

    • A key difference between energy and your example of silver is that energy is the foundation for every economic exchange, and silver is not. So I think energy deserves a special seat in our assessment of how its limitations impose limitations to the economy as a whole.

      • Silver is a fine example for argument. Many of us can remember when the most important single use for silver was in photography. Obviously the silver was recycled to the extent possible, but some losses were inevitable, and the price of film had to reflect the cost of the silver in its emulsion.

        Twenty five or thirty years ago someone fearing a shortage of silver might have predicted that access to photography would have to be rationed, perhaps saved for medical x-rays. It would have been very hard to foresee the present, when many a kindergartener can take and discard as many photos as a professional photographer used to, without even asking mommy.

        This is greater photographic utility at lower cost in scarce resources.

        The cornucopian position is that energy sources can be replaced in the same way as silver was, by the application of human cleverness. The opposing position is that a profusion of new industrial goods was the simple consequence of having a surplus of fossil fuel at our disposal, and that we are not likely to be able to continue as those fossil fuels decline in availability. After all, human beings amply demonstrated clever use of available resources long before the industrial revolution.

  14. I would like comment some more on the energy trap.

    How do you explain the fact that we still have wheat, corn, pigs and cows? There are no fossil deposits of any of those things and yet we keep producing them. They are similar to energy in the sense that you need to avoid consuming some of them in order to produce more.

    Now there are reasonable objections: returns are maybe higher (I think most grains are 10:1, I am not sure how to evaluate animals) and implementation time is shorter (definitely for cereals, I am not sure for animals, some take year to grow to maturity). I am not sure such differences are totally relevant.

    I am sure there are more examples, but probably not many where the relevant commodity can be both directly consumed and invested. Usually the cycle is a bit more complicated. For example you need to build steel mills to have steel and you need steel to build steel mills (plus the steel to build mine equipment, the trains to transport the ore, etc…). The steel that goes into steel mills cannot be directly consumed. I cannot see a lack of steel mills in the world. I am sure it take years for a steel mill to repay its initial construction costs (not sure how long it would take to produce the steel to build another steel mill, I am guessing months at least).

    I am not trying to belittle your concern. I honestly think that the comparison is relevant. Delaying consumption in order to invest is the basic mechanism of economy.

    • I put energy in a special category because it is needed to carry out every economic activity. There is no substitute. In that sense, food is pretty similar. A key difference between the two is that current energy use is dominated by a finite supply. Yes, it takes energy to extract those energy resources, so there is a similarity to food on that score. But unlike wheat or pigs, holding back some oil does not guarantee we will always have oil, rather than running out.

      But this is somewhat tangent to your skepticism over the energy trap. Your statement is that the practice of restraint to allow future prosperity is age-old and part of what economic forces naturally do for us. Agreed.

      I think the difference is that as we must ween ourselves from fossil fuels, we’re looking at a phase transition in the way we do energy. Energy transformations have tended to take many decades in the past. If the conventional energy supply enters a steep enough decline, the shock can be large, and the substantial energy investment required to establish a new infrastructure can indeed cause a pinch (increasing energy scarcity/hardship).

      Perhaps the market takes care of this by escalating energy prices to exorbitant levels. This is just another manifestation to the trap. A severe depression could result that stiffles our ability to meet the challenge, and we wind down as a result. I don’t know what the future holds, or whether the energy trap will really play out to be a thing. But I think it’s a distinct (likely?) possibility. Energy is not just another commodity, but the mother of them all. Tread carefully.

      • Escalating energy prices are not a manifestation of the trap.

        There are two reasons for prices to go up: increased demand and reduced supply. Those are not equivalent. Reduced supply (e.g. the sun stop shining in the sky to be extreme) is a real tragedy and it would cause real hardship. Increased demand is simply a signal that that activity should be increased. If it cannot be increased, it will act as a drag on growth. But you need actual reduction in supply to cause a recession.

        Oil prices have tripled in the last 5-10 years. They could triple again in the next 10 years. The reason they might not is that at that point other technologies will actually be cheaper than oil and that will depress oil consumption pushing the price back down. Unless you consider the economic crisis we have had in the last 5 years as big enough to derail modern civilization, we will survive the next increase as well. We don’t need production to go down for prices to go up. The economic growth coming from developing countries is enough to increase demand so that a simply stagnant production will push prices much higher.

        There is really only one issue with the ascendancy of renewable energy as far as I can see. We still have way too much coal. I think known reserves are good for at least 100-150 years from what I remember. If you believe that the environmental cost of switching all our energy production to coal are too high, then we have a problem. But a pollution problem not an energy problem.

        I personally fear that much more than the energy trap.

        In another post you are describing how exponential growth is impossible. You say we would consume the entire sun output hitting earth in 400 years. Assuming that we devote 1% of world land to solar plants (I think it compares well with about 8.5% devoted to agriculture) and that efficiency is about 10%, that given us 10 times current energy consumption. Assuming population/energy growth will halve that gives us 200 years. The world was pretty different in 1812. If they have to give up energy growth in 200 years (while still consuming 10 times more than we do), they’ll find a way…

        • Alessandro,
          The economic process you are describing is well known, however it is worth considering that the “real world” is far more complex and involves a great deal more uncertainty than what the relatively simple models of mainstream economics can provide for.

          For example, in the last paragraph of your preceding post, you make many assumptions about the future which you really cannot justify with any meaningful degree of certainty.

          Concern about the “energy trap” comes from the concept of the peaking supply of very high EROEI, non-renewable energy sources – energy sources which consumer societies and the global economy in general have used as the very basis of their evolution to such spectacular size.

  15. Somehow, we need to grow up and realize the benefits of positive discipline. (It’s a book written to better raise children by Jane Nelsen). She says that
    “Punishment causes rebellion, resentment, regret and or retreat, and
    Blaming and shaming is not proper discipline”.
    I conclude that these negative responses are thus the faulty foundation to which we have such a hard time to collectively reduce or better our energy intake.
    It’s not ok for the kids to waste water, but it “is” still ok for us to do so. It’s that darn money mentality isn’t it?
    Somehow, I believe we must adapt as kids who are taught with positive influence, so as to “want” to lower or better our energy intake… I do, however, merely using a few solar lights in place of the real ones does not justify my taking long showers!
    I know that we can’t just conserve till the last drop but realize that we need that extra time to implement the tech (most of which we already have) to “save us”.

    I am grateful that Tom has done this experiment to such a level of success . I am compelled to make a difference too! If many do, then others will have a greater chance of observing and causing the change we want to see.

  16. First, I applaud you for pointing out, in this post and others, that people’s lives can be scaled up or down easily. This is true in general, energy use, income, expense, time management, happiness, stress, etc. True across many dimensions. I like you how point out the tradeoff between being able to reduce and still “… engage in important pursuits”. This is the imporant piece because it makes the realization that the tradeoff exists.

    Once we know that tradeoffs are possible and that we each are justified to consume energy in order to “engage in important pursuits” then we fall into the trap of simply judging others through our lense of what is important and how much energy we believe should be spend in that important pursuit. This is where the environmental push falls apart in my opinion — though I do believe that there are objective limits that can be agreed upon by everyone. In the meantime, environmentalists (everyone) simply judge others in a relatively baseless way like small children who can’t argue (“you consume more than me”,”you eat animals and I don’t”, “you use up more public services than me”,”you work in a selfish industry while I don’t”,”you drive more agressively than I do”, “I’m pretty and you’re not”, “my dad can beat up your dad”, etc)

    You are also very right to notice that convincing people of doing things is hard! It is a marketing excercise. We can’t compell others with force on this side of the planet, but there are effective marketing techniques that can be used, such as shame or games as you suggest, or fear of loss or herding as many environmental groups currently do.

    The type of contemplation that you do here is great. It’s the way that people really do get better. Like a marathon runner who analyzes his competition, learns from them, then exceeds them. I’m one of those people who loves to tinker with optimizing my life (I take cold showers, I have one vehicle for a family of 6 and take transit to work, I keep the thermostat as low as 14C in the winter if I can sneak it past my wife, I save about 30%+ of my income, I plan to retire by 40, I often buy used clothes, etc). So I’m “better” than a lot of people, but unfortunately I don’t see much of that rubbing off to the general population. I try to get better but there are only a few of my friends who feed off that and help me in return. I really wonder how to convince them! Thanks for the great read.

  17. I agree with Alessandro’s sentiments about high prices. In a free market economy, high prices is the best way to ration demand. People do not have to be persuaded or taught that driving is bad, the high cost of gasoline will do that. High prices can come in the form of Peak Oil and/or very high taxes as in most Europeans countries.

    On the other hand, I also agree with Tom Murphy’s argument that individuals can do something to make a difference. It takes critical mass to start a movement. And you can’t start a movement if you don’t walk the walk. And no, Al Gore, the Nobel Prize winning multi-millionaire who lives in mansions and owns private jets cannot be the face of this movement.

    Once again, I must bring up Europe as comparison (I live in Switzerland). A lot of European progressive policies can be adopted by Americans without sacrificing much in terms of standards of living. High taxes on gasoline is the most important one. Living in apartment blocks instead of single family houses is another. A large living space is directly related to how much useless crap one buys.

    What I think will happen is that high oil prices will force Americans to move back into cities. This will reduce gasoline consumption, heating, and consumption in general. Less space will be available to store all the toys that people buy. It will be bad for the Chinese economy as most of the useless junk people buy are made in China. But it will be good for the environment.

    • While I’d like myself to see a densification of the US, I have to note that it has its own high upfront costs. The apartment blocks don’t exist to move into. Yeah, there was flight out of the city, but some times ago, and the population is bigger now; it can’t just move in. So lots of building has to be done, of buildings and transit and possibly of more commodious water and sewage pipes. At $100,000 per person for 100 million people, or $33,000 per person for the whole population, you’d be looking at expenditures of $10 trillion — comparable to building 1 terawatt of nuclear or solar thermal with storage electricity at $10/watt.

      Also, whether it gives up standard of living is debatable. You and I may think that living in a mixed-use pedestrian city is a step up, but lots of Americans would view the loss of a yard and of driving as a big loss of standard of living. The change won’t be easy.

      • It does not take NEW spending in cities. It takes a reallocation of current spending. And it’s not government spending, housing is a private sector.

        You do know that new houses are still being built in Las Vegas and Phoenix despite the fact that there is still an over-supply of houses there right? When people start moving out of those desert areas in mass in search for water and jobs, the builders will follow them.

        New York, Chicago, Portland, San Francisco, Boston, Austin, etc and their surrounding areas all have experienced high growth. We are seeing and we will continue to see money to into refurbishing old buildings in those areas.

        People who cannot adapt and continue to live in the suburbs because they like their lawns and two car garages will pay a higher and higher percentage of their income in gasoline. Is that a increase or decrease in standard of living? Money spent on gasoline is money that cannot be spent on anything else.

        • “And it’s not government spending, housing is a private sector.” I didn’t say anything about government spending. It’s a cost to society, whoever’s paying.

          “It takes a reallocation of current spending.”

          You can do it that way, but then it’s *slow*. There’s 131 million housing units in the US, for our 310 million people. Annualized construction rates are 747,000/year, up from about 550,000 in the bottom of the crash, down from a peak of about 2.1 million at the top of the bubble in 2006. It would take 163 years to turn over the housing stock at the current rate, or 62 years at the boom rate. About 2/3 of the housing supply is single-family homes; if you want to move a large fraction of those people to apartments, you’ll have to wait a while or engage in a lot of costly construction which would not have otherwise been done, because built housing represents a lot of labor and embodied energy and can last a long time.

  18. I agree with Pawlak. If we are ever to make a difference, and save the future of our grandchildren, it is up to the government to take a stand. What the neighbors are doing is wasteful and they should be ashamed.
    TL – you bring up a good point on oil prices. I’m not sure about forcing everyone to move back into the city though. The lack of jobs elsewhere will do that alone.

  19. I have skimmed through your blogs and didn’t see much information about Tankless Water Heaters. I installed my own and love it. There is no pilot light and it only generates hot water when a tiny turbine (flow sensor) spins. It also freed up a lot of space in my garage. I live up the street from you if you care to check it out Tom.

  20. This is the best blog on energy i have read, and tells it how it is with hard numbers.

    My input to the debate is this:

    Any organic household waste can be digested and converted to healthy food by the oyster mushroom. Its an incredibly potent organism, and it would be interesting to see analysis on how much waste it could convert to food/usable soil.

    On the subject of oyster mushrooms, growing them while deploying the substrate as loft insulation would reduce heat loss from a home, grow a food supply (that can be expanded exponentially) and make the household more resilient.

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