Sunday, May 10, 2009

Energy: should we get more buckets, or plug the leak?

An energy analogy:

A boat is sinking. Water inside is rising faster than the buckets and pumps can remove it.

One response: “We need more buckets and pumps.”

Another: We can't pump forever. We need to plug the leak.

Think about energy that way.

The rising water is energy demand. It's incessant, and it's rising.

The buckets and pumps are the sources of energy needed to meet that demand. The supply side of this scenario suggests you could put more people on the bucket line (more power plants), but that's ancient technology and it has its downside (people get tired; fossil fuels exacerbate climate change). You could bring solar and wind-powered pumps online.

The other alternative is the demand side. How to plug the leak/reduce the demand? One way is to cut your use; change your lifestyle. But the elephant in this room is efficiency. Keep the standard of living you have, but use less power to do it. Or another way of looking at it: Suck more useful work out of every piece of energy you pay for.

It's not just something that the major economies can afford.

“The economic case for improving demand-side efficiency is strong. Using solely existing technologies that pay for themselves in future energy savings, consumers and businesses in developing countries could secure savings of an estimated $600 billion a year by 2020. Far from costing money, investing in energy productivity generates energy savings that could ramp up to $600 billion annually by 2020 across all developing regions. Because of their positive returns, energy-efficiency investments are also the cheapest way to meet growing energy needs,” says the McKinsey Global Institute (

Produce the light you need with fixtures that use a quarter the power. Drive cars that get double or quadruple the fuel economy. Cool your food with the most efficient refrigerators possible. Insulate buildings and improve designs to remove the need to cool or heat them.

“Energy efficiency is by far the biggest low-carbon resource available — and it is as limitless as wind, PV, and solar baseload. It is also the cheapest power you can buy, by far,” writes Climate Progress, the climate science blog, which has lots more on climate issues than we're able to cover. (

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

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