Cut your energy bills in half

A newspaper story I once read (almost certainly apocryphal) claimed that advertisement to this effect asked for a small payment in return for a guaranteed method of cutting energy bills in half. If you paid up, you received, by return mail, a pair of scissors.

A more serious version of this question occurred to me in relation to yet another dispute about the allegedly special character of energy as a commodity. It occurred to me to ask the following question: suppose that my family and I had to reduce my personal energy consumption, immediately and permanently by 50 per cent. How feasible would it be, and how much worse off would we be? So, assuming we attempted it evenly across the board, this would mean

* Reducing car travel by 50 per cent, until we could get a more fuel-efficient car, or share rides
* Reducing lighting by 50 per cent, until we could get more energy-efficient lightbulbs
* Reducing air travel by 50 per cent, until airlines introduced more fuel-efficient planes
* Reducing use of airconditioning and central heating by 50 per cent, either by turning it off half the time or by adjusting thermostats
* Reducing use of existing consumer durables and purchase of new ones by 50 per cent, until substitutes with less lifecycle energy use became available

To make it a bit tougher, we might try to achieve bigger reductions in these areas, to offset various forms of indirect energy use, such as the energy used in food production.

My assessment is that this would be very difficult. But do some comparisons, and it looks easy.

Suppose we tried the same thing with other goods and services. As residents of Brisbane, we had to do this with water during the drought. Brisbane residents reduced consumption by around 50 per cent with stringent restrictions. Most notably, watering of gardens had to done with buckets, in a window of a few hours per week. Given the experience, I’d say that was harder than any one of the cuts listed above, and probably harder than two or three of them put together. And, unlike the energy case, where you could gradually substitute more efficient optins, saving water didn’t get easier over time. Fortunately, at the time, we could cut water use in half by economising in the garden. Now that we live in an apartment, the only place to cut water use significantly would be the shower, which would be a real stinker (sic).

But mention of the apartment brings me on to housing. The analogous requirement would be that we should share with another family until we could move somewhere half the size. I’ve got no hesitation in saying that I’d rather make all the energy-related cuts listed above than do this.

Even worse, how about food, healthcare and education? Reducing these by 50 per cent would be unimaginable, even if you treated meat and other animal foods as embodying the associated grain inputs. Think about doubling class sizes, or halving the school year and compare this to the minor inconveniences described in relation to energy.

To sum up, while energy[1] is an important aspect of most things we do in a modern economy, it’s far from being the most important. The idea that energy is special, and that energy use cannot be reduced without a drastic reduction in living standards is an error, and one that is crippling our capacity to respond to the problem of climate change.

fn1 It’s also worth remembering that energy per se isn’t a problem, it’s C02 emissions. So, given a few years to adjust, we could install solar panels, buy green energy and so on. Renewable energy is not a complete solution, but it can make a big contribution

46 thoughts on “Cut your energy bills in half

  1. Skylights with directed lighting are widely available, so if a supermarket—big sheds, they be—wanted to reduce cost on lighting, it could add such skylights and use lights that cut in when ambient light levels drop below a preset threshold. This ensures that lighting is always at an adequate level for shoppers and staff alike. In other words, just because supermarkets, shops, businesses, households, etc, have done things one way in the past, it doesn’t mean that they are unable to adapt to using new ways to achieve the same objective but with less energy consumption (from the grid, and in general).

  2. 1. If QLD halved energy consumption in primary production (mining, LNG, agriculture) we in Brisbane would have a drastic reduction in living standards. Indeed if QLD simply froze energy consumption in mining and LNG we would have a very drastic reduction of living standards given how we we have already spent tomorrows income today, given the near complete and permanent collapse in our competitiveness in most other industries, and given continued population growth.

    2. The Tokyo summer, with a lot of nukes offline, provides a kind of experiment- with a short lead time, for electricity only, in a very different economy. I suggest it indicates that in practice economy-wide energy reductions are difficult.

    An electricity peak reduction of 18% was achieved on the peak day vs last year, this required business rationing with shifting of work to weekends, less aircon, early morning starts, etc. (How much business was lost or sent offshore or to other parts of Japan is not clear.) Households voluntarily contributed a 6% reduction only (though would have been more if it hadn’t been a hotter day than 2010.)

    For the summer (Jul+Aug) Tepco achieved 11% volume, ie gWh, reduction in electricity (after adjusting 3% for a generally cooler summer:- 14% reduction in electricity demand in 2011 vs Jul+Aug 2010.)

    3. I do think that concern over the economic impacts of the Australian carbon tax impact is overblown, at the introductory fixed rate at least.

  3. I suspect that if you’d actually find this hard it is because you’re already using energy more efficiently than most of the population. I know I’d find this a challenge, but that is because my energy consumption is so low. For example, I travel by car roughly once a month (ok twice a month being the trip to and from my destination on the same day). Not only are most of the trips necessary, but given that the car in question is only used a couple of times a week (more often by my parents) the cost of replacing it with a hybrid would be high.

    However, probably 90% of the population drives a car that is significantly less efficient than the best available for their needs. Many would make back their money in the long run by shifting over, and most would make a fair chunk of the difference back. If they get a 30% saving in energy consumption just by changing cars, the reduction in the number of trips (or car pooling) becomes relatively easy.

    For some people it would be a challenge because of the capital costs – if you’re not in a position to borrow easily it doesn’t matter much that in the long term you’ll come out ahead. However, this is something that could easily be fixed with a green loans scheme set up with more care than the rushed job we witnessed during the GFC.

  4. Stockingrate: How do you read the Tokyo summer experience as indicating great difficulties? A big chunk of the famous “baseload power” was taken offline at short notice and everything went smoothly – some modest adjustments by business and voluntary action by households cut peak demand by 18 per cent. The predicted blackouts didn’t happen etc

    On point 1: I think you are confusing fuel production with energy consumption. It’s true that if the world suddenly cut energy consumption by 50 per cent, there would be a big negative impact on the coal industry in Queensland. But that’s equally true for any other commodity if the region in question depends on selling that commodity. There’s nothing special about energy or coal here.

  5. I certainly don’t consider myself or my family as paragons of virtue, really we have a perfectly middle class existence. however, by the available evidence I’ve been able to find, we use much less electricity than the average Australian household, for two adults and two kids.

    Our consumption is, over a year, about the same as the production of a 1 kW solar array over the same time period.

    I don’t really know why this is, simply buying slightly more efficient appliances, turning things off and not having air con seems to make world of difference. That’s why I have a deal of confidence that energy efficiency still has a long way to go in Aus.

  6. @wilful
    It does indeed have a long way to go. You might be surprised to realise that energy efficiency barely figures in the average Australian household. New houses are being built right now without any effective insulation, with a split system almost included by default. Electricity is so cheap most people haven’t a clue how much they are using. I cut my households electricity consumption by 50% and it wasn’t that hard once I started tracking where it was being used. As for cars, a 50% reduction in petrol wouldn’t be difficult for a lot of people judging by the fact that every road in suburban Melbourne is decorated with tyre marks. Petrol is another source of energy that is so cheap that it’s wasted with abandon. Here is a situation where large high powered vehicles have created an environment in which people who have chosen sensible cars or bikes are made to feel unsafe, an increase in the price of petrol would result in an improvement in these peoples lives.

  7. @wilful that is impressive. Our family of five (3 children under 10, 150 m2 house) uses 8-9 kWh/day, but we also have central gas space heating which gets well used during the Canberra winters. I don’t have the consumption figures for the gas (about $600-$700 per winter).

    We are also not energy misers, but have installed low energy globes where possible. We do not have a pool. We do have evaporative air-con, but this seems to be very efficient and uses relatively little electricity and water.

    Our electricity consumption is still low compared to the average. The best figures for usage I could find were here:

    And the relevant figure (9.2)

    This shows an average residential consumption per household (customer) of 8.35 MWh/year, which is 24.1 kWh/day.

    Clearly our electricity bill would be substantially higher without gas space heating. We have solar hot water, and this reduced our electricity consumption by about 50%.

    There is a very interesting figure (9.3) with average consumption per person by state:

    Clearly Tasmania has some room for improvement! The ACT figure is only slightly lower than the figure by household. This is odd, as the ACT has >2 people per dwelling. I cannot reconcile those figures.

    One of the best ways to improve efficiency is to know what target you are trying to achieve. I thought we had done quite well, but your household is consuming half the electricity we are. Now I want to know how!

  8. Its a bit late, Aiden, but if you were serious about cutting fueld consumption or CO2, why did you have a family of five? There is a serious point here: you refer to data on energy consumption per person, but the climate does not care about the number of people, only total emissions.

  9. @Tom I had not control over the conception of my wife, or myself, so I’m only on the hook for the three children I hope?

    Your broader point is, I guess, the more people the more resources we consume? Yes?

    What might then, be the ideal number of children?

    Zero? Clearly this is not an option. We would quickly ossify as a society and go broke for lack of working age citizens.

    One? Sounds familiar. Whilst it was an excellent method for stabilising Chinese population growth, it would also lead, rather rapidly, to an aging population profile incapable of sustaining itself.

    Two? Replacement! Excellent! People-neutral! Oh, what about those people who choose not to have children? So now we have a demographic problem again, only maybe not so profound.

    Three? You greedy bastard! How dare you pollute the planet with your CO2 emitting offspring!

    Now the obvious counter-argument to my main thrust (aging population profile = bad stuff) is to increase immigration. But isn’t that just importing the result of over-fecundity in other countries?

    I’m afraid the CO2 contribution of my children was in no way a factor in the decision to have them. Maybe it should have been, though I think that is a little sad. Now they are here I figure there I figure I should be as energy efficient as reasonably possible. Am I wrong?


    Now the obvious counter-argument to my main thrust (aging population profile = bad stuff) is to increase immigration. But isn’t that just importing the result of over-fecundity in other countries?

    Maybe, but if there are too many people in the world, and some of them are willing to come here, why should we exacerbate the problem. You think its ‘sad’ the take the full impacts of reproduction into account; I think its just responsible.

  11. Tom N. :
    Maybe, but if there are too many people in the world, and some of them are willing to come here, why should we exacerbate the problem. You think its ‘sad’ the take the full impacts of reproduction into account; I think its just responsible.

    So, colours to the mast time. How many children is acceptable? One? None?

    I once saw a t-shirt “Save the world, eat a baby”. I think “Save the world, don’t have children” is about the same level, but at least the first one was funny.

  12. Cut energy use in half and the Privatised Utility Companies will merely double the price to maintain their profitability.

    Might help the environment but my family (and many many others) can’t afford it.

  13. How are the Japanese going in their post tsunami electricity conservation efforts? Not very impressively. Electricity supplied YTD is down 1.2% on the same period in 2010. Electricity supplied in June 2011 was up 0.6%. May 2011 was also up. Unsurprisingly combustible fuel use in electricity generation was up 17.1% in June.

    This sort of suggests that appeals for behavioral change are not going to get very far – even in a political situation where those appeals are grounded in the immediate (as distinct from future) common good.

    I seldom agree with TerjeP on much at all, but he is quite right in asking how such appeals translate into policy.

    Furthermore this sort of thing just breeds complacency – “It will be OK if we all just use 20% less”. It won’t.

  14. @aidan

    Let me say first Aiden re the number of progeny, I regard it as borderline rude to question another’s family lifestyle choices. Nothing I say from this point forward should be read as in any way as a reference to your circumstances. It seems to me a pretty basic thing that provided one is prepared to accept responsibility for one’s choices, and is in a position to do so, it really is their business.

    That said …

    What might then, be the ideal number of children?

    From the point of view of reducing the number of people demanding resources to something sustainable, fewer than 2 per couple, obviously. If you have already had one with partner, it carries forward. That’s maths rather than a cultural recommendation.

    Zero? Clearly this is not an option. We would quickly ossify as a society and go broke for lack of working age citizens.

    Yes and no. Plainly it’s improbable that everyone would fail to have children or even that most would fail to have children. An active choice not to have children will be balanced against those who go on to have three, four, five, six or seven. Yet even allowing the counterfactual that on average world births per female fell well below 2 it does not follow that society would soon find a shortage of working age citizens. Conceivably, people might not retire at 65 and with improving health care, go on to work well into their 80’s and longer. We are, quite rightly, examining ways in which to maintain the functional health of our older citizens. Improving technology might continue to reduce the call on labour, and of course, with fewer citizens there’s less demand for service. Not as many people need to be fed, clothed, housed, educated or otherwise provided for. Children are a significant call on services in the west until they reach about 20.

    Now the obvious counter-argument to my main thrust (aging population profile = bad stuff) is to increase immigration. But isn’t that just importing the result of over-fecundity in other countries?

    I’m not sure why this is a problem.

    Disclosure: I have had two children by one partner.

  15. Re:Reducing air travel by 50 per cent, until airlines introduced more fuel-efficient planes

    It would have to be a relational value number rather than a percentage because if aircraft became twice as fuel efficient but flew three times the airmiles we’d fall short. So if aircraft cut fuel per airmile by 25% then only a 25% cut in airmiles is required. Maybe you’d have to ration airmiles accordingly.

    Frankly though I don’t see that most air travel is necessary anyway. Sure it’s fun to travel the world and see new places, but the bulk of the world’s population is never getting onto an aircraft, and the heaviest users aren’t even wealthy tourists but upper middle class people on business which could be done using VPNs/teleconferencing.

    Another major call on aircraft fuel is of course the world’s military. If you simply grounded the bulk of them you’d put a huge dent in emissions at zero cost to essential human need. Of course, the politics of that is pretty obvious.

    Unmentioned in the above list was heavy shipping. I read somewhere that the 9 heaviest bulk-cargo ships emit as much pollution as all the world’s land based passenger vehicles. If true that is an astonishing statistic. If these 9 craft all had nuclear-powered engines there would be an enormous cut in pollution, obviously.

    I imagine the world’s fishing trawlers would generate quite a pollution bill, not to mention the devastation they visit on marine diversity. Also an obvious target.

  16. quokka :
    How are the Japanese going in their post tsunami electricity conservation efforts?

    This is anecdotal, but I’ve been told that researchers in Universities were told to curtail energy intensive activities to such an extent that they did not undertake research they would have otherwise done.

    That is not sustainable or desirable.

  17. John

    since this is my first comment I’d like to say what an excellent blog.

    On the subject of energy efficiency and reduction of demand I did some modelling on that some years ago on the subject of water (rather than energy) and found that if you work from a societal level and work on making a 3% per annum reduction by a combination of 1) increased efficiency 2) supplementing demand with alternative sources [such as solar in your energy example] you countered the expansion of demand on the primary source due to population growth to the point where it flatlined and actually went down after 30 years.

  18. @John Quiggin
    Well if you put it like that….

    However, I have the impression that the constraints were more immediately disruptive to lifestyles than my experience of the unpleasant water restrictions in Brisbane.

    On point 1: Assuming the world market for LNG, coal, copper etc was unchanged, halving the onshore energy consumption in these industries (eg for LNG: producing gas at the drill field, pumping to Gladstone, liquefying) would translate into not much less than 50% reduction in production. There would be immediate selection of the most energy efficient of the existing operations and some technical energy efficiencies, but the low hanging fruit would soon be picked and then deeper, lower grade resources more distant from the coast would lead to reduced output for a given unit of energy input.

  19. Hi John,

    Have your read much of the rebound effect literature? This rebound effect –

    “The idea that energy is special, and that energy use cannot be reduced without a drastic reduction in living standards is an error, and one that is crippling our capacity to respond to the problem of climate change.”

    Energy is not special, but it is important – as are all other inputs to the economy. Have you heard of Len Brookes’s idea of the indivisibility of economic productivity? Or Costanza’s 1980 paper where he uses input-output methods to calculate embodied energy, but doesn’t treat labour as an input, but a transfer. It led him to propose an energy theory of value, since the embodied energy per dollar for the outputs was so similar.

  20. The rebound effect is straightforward supply and demand: if for some exogenous reason, there is an improvement in energy efficiency leading to a reduction in the price of energy services, then the volume of services demanded will increase. The net effect on energy demand can go either way.

    But if an increase in energy efficiency arises as a result of a tax or regulatory requirement, the cost of energy services will rise, reducing demand and reinforcing the initial reduction in energy use.


    I would be interested in hearing from the blogosphere about the prospects for Rossi’s “cold fusion” (Low Energy Nuclear Reaction) device. So far his device has survived inspection and has been granted an Italian patent, despite plenty of “too good to be true” skepticism.

    I am an agnostic, cautiously optimistic. Previous episodes of cold fusion have burnt a few fingers, [pun intended].

    Tonight’s the night that that his one megawatt e-cat gets put through its paces with some pretty heavy physics big=wigs standing by to check for any hanky-panky.

    Andrea Rossi has apparently scheduled a demonstration of a 1 MW (megawatt) e-cat cold fusion plant for October 6 in Bologna, Italy. This demonstration is supposed to be attended by professors of physics from all over the world according to a letter that Professor Franco Ciogna of the University of Bologna sent to the European Patent Office on September 27….The names of the professors are not revealed. Professors from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences presumably Hanno Essen, and Swen Kullander who have been working with Rossi for sometime are also supposed to be there.

    This device, if tests valid, has the capacity to completely revolutionise the energy industry, cutting power generation costs by 90% and, even more radically, putting power generation into the hands of back-yard manafacturers. Combine that with 3D printing (and throw in AI) and we have a whole new world economy.

    Well, its fun to dream.

    Lets hope he pulls it off. If he does then the coal industry is toast and our global warming fears will be a thing of the past. Time to short Macarthur Coal.

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