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. JQ,

    Actually, you could make the argument that cutting energy use is easier than cutting use of almost any other product, precisely because it is special. Its a factor of production of virtually everything, so I can chose amongst the whole array of consumables which ones I derive least benefit from and cut those. On the other hand, cutting health services can only be done by cutting health services: they aren’t really a factor of production for a vast array of other things that I may not really care about.

    As for water, you would’ve made much more impact by becoming vegetarian and only drinking water from the tap (rather than juice, alcohol, softdrink etc) than by having shorter showers and refraining from watering your garden, although the impact may not have been as localised (either geographically or temporally).

  2. @Dominic Meagher

    As for water, you would’ve made much more impact by becoming vegetarian and only drinking water from the tap (rather than juice, alcohol, softdrink etc) than by having shorter showers and refraining from watering your garden, although the impact may not have been as localised (either geographically or temporally).

    While I take your general point — the amount of water to produce fruit juice, alcohol and softdrink is very considerable — shorter showers could make a considerable difference.

    On the more general point PrQ makes, it’s probably worth noting that not all consumers are human. Some are businesses, and many of them could turn out the lights in their buildings when premises were unattended, having them turned on by a motion sensor and time clock. Display lighting in urban areas could be radically reduced, since all of this is utterly frivolous. I understand that in Barbados, there are no billboards at roadsides. No amount of individual human consumer behaviour can achieve this. Either regulatory action or business behaviour change would be needed to do this.

    It would be possible to facilitate greater car pooling, perhaps by slightly relaxing some of the rules around it and charging. I’ve often thought that creating parking nodes on major routes into the city connected with rapid shuttle buses might cut the number of single occupant vehicles heading into and out of town and sped the passage of those vehicles still on the roads. The creation of these nodes might facilitate localised car pooling.

  3. If you subscribe to the ideas of Amory Lovins et al. from the Rocky Mountain Institute, a four fold reduction in energy use should be achievable. My own experience is that 50% is pretty easy on paper, but that results after implementation sometimes falls short.

  4. How does this translate into policy?

    Efficiency gains in steam engines or aircraft or any number of other areas through history lead to higher consumption not lower consumption. However it seems you are not calling for efficiency in the first instance but rationing. It isn’t clear if you think the rationing should be voluntary, compulsory or merely a thought experiment.

    Mass deployment of solar and wind capacity as a substitute for fossil fuels is already a failed experiment. All that remains is that somebody call time on the experiment. It may yet be decades as is often the case with failed public policy but for those that have eyes to see the writing is already on the wall.

  5. I’ll make some comments about the “allegedly special character of energy as a commodity.” I argued this case comprehensively in a big post on thermoeconomics (biophysical economics), so I guess I should step up to the plate. When I write “Energy” below, I mean “energy available for useful work”. Another term for “energy available for useful work” is “exergy”.

    I argued (among other things) that;

    1. Energy is the one resource needed to utilise all other resources.
    2. Energy is needed to create and maintain complexity (order from disorder).
    3. All products of the economy contain embodied energy.
    4. An Energy theory of value promises the best quantitative method for value comparisons.
    (The market provides a qualitiative or at best “heuristic” method.

    I suggested Energy availability would be a key limiting factor for economic growth as we reach the general limits to growth. In this last suggestion I am now willing to admit that I might be wrong. Energy, although a key resource, is also a ubiquitous resource due to incoming solar energy (insolation). Thus other limits may be reached first. Liebig’s Law of the Minimum will cut in respect of one or more of the “key” resources and will thus begin limiting all human economic production. As an aside, putting a question mark over Energy being the “key limiting resource” does invalidate the four points above.

    I understand Prof JQ’s argument and from the angle he takes it appears valid. However, Peak Energy theory also looks valid to me. It’s just a matter of whether Peak Energy or some other peak begins to limit us first, be that Peak Soil, Peak Fresh Water, Peak Trace Elements, Peak Arable Land, Peak Climate Benignity etc. etc. Once these limits are reached they will tend to compound each other in a vicious spiral. Energy shortages, along with food and water shortages are very liekly to be the most prominent and obvious of these problems.

    Also, I am not sure if Prof. JQ is forgetting Jevon’s Paradox in suggesting that energy efficiency will have the required result trick under the current market system.

  6. well the post proves one thing most emphatically

    John has no clues whatsoever about energy economics

    or any economics i’d imagine

    in fact a more child like post i’ve not read for a long time

    the world is falling down around us – and has been for some time

    if John thinks that what we are witnessing has nothing to do with energy then i wonder what he spends his spare time doing – because it can’t be reading broadly can it.

    but i (again) read recently that neuroscience has shown that people pick and chose what they listen to, read, and accept based on whether or not it reinforces their existing bias


  7. For individual households (as opposed to “appartment-holds”), shower water can be re-used as graywater, so a household could put in a special collection system unilaterally. Appartments are at the mercy of the appartment management, so it may be more difficult for them. Therefore, it is possible to reduce water consumption as a whole by using water from one use as water for another use (shower, then graywater for toilet flushing, some plants can handle it, etc). A return-suds capable washing machine can signficantly cut water consumption for laundry. Finally, washing dishes manually rather than via a dedicated dishwasher machine—that’s an easy saving of water use.

    Water is more difficult to cut by 50%, but still achievable. If a trade-off between water recycling and energy consumption is permitted, further water re-use is possible at the expense of using more energy to enable that re-use.

    Just some idle thoughts while waiting for “Monroe” to start on the ABC.

  8. @Ikonoclast

    I expect we will hit peak population long before we hit anything approximating peak energy. That is to say the population will be trending down some time in the next hundred years and we will probably not be suffering any worse than today.

  9. “4. An Energy theory of value promises the best quantitative method for value comparisons.”

    No, it doesn’t. Value is inherently subjective. It can’t be objectively quantified.

  10. John — I still can’t agree with you. The fact that *this* particular case of energy is relatively unproblematic is far, far from a general proof of energy’s non-centrality. If, for example, your family were gluttons and water hogs — huge irrigated gardens, a pool, very rich calorie-dense foods, and–typical of most first world households, food waste ranged from 20-50%, I think you’d find actually that cutting the food and water you consumed in half would be at least as “easy” (or difficult) as energy. It seems to me that *any* commodity, with a high enough starting point, can be cut in half without significant issue–this doesn’t prove that every single commodity is the same in toto. Expanding from Dominic’s point, saying that energy is the fundamental coin of the realm seems to me to inherently make it different, *even if in certain circumstances its behavior maps the same.* The point is that its behavior maps the same as all else *only* in certain circumstances. (Imagine you were a consumer already doing the measures you point to above. Now cut them in half again…)

    I absolutely agree with you that cutting energy does *not* necessarily mean cutting quality of life significantly. But I would argue this is generally from the fact that we live extravagantly energy-rich lifestyles in the Global North, and thus have plenty to spare, not because energy is the same as all else. Equating the two points does not actually logically follow. That is “Energy is a fundamental and special commodity” does not == “Cutting energy use will always and forever substantially decrease quality of life.” Disproving the latter does not disprove the former.

    Energy has limited substitutability. Because you cannot substitute other items for it ad infinitum, and because it is the “coin” of all activity, it is different. You cannot obtain water without energy, or grow food without energy; you cannot do anything without energy. In its “middle ranges” of availability and use, it behaves as all other commodities. But having tons of per capita energy allows for completely new vistas of production (e.g. discovery and utilization of steam, coal, oil, fire) and having very little available restricts every single area, constraining choices among other commodities (e.g. energy must be allocated to food and water and away from all other activities). Having tons of food or water can allow some new choices, having not enough will constrain many, but in energy’s case replace “some” with “many” and “many” with “all.”

    I think your argument that reducing energy consumption won’t be disastrous is right on; I think that it is both unnecessary and logically faulty to route this through the argument of “because energy’s like everything else.”

  11. These “energy theory of value” and energy as “coin of the rhelm” notions are daft. Energy has negligible monetary properties.

  12. Yes, energy is very cheap, and we do waste it. The cuts John describes would be irritating but not really risky. But . . .

    Even if all families follow John in cutting personal energy use by 50 percent, it doesn’t follow that there would be a big drop in overall energy consumption. Consider what a 50 percent overall cut would mean:-

    Supermarkets would have to halve their opening hours, reduce lighting and air conditioning levels, and shut down half their display freezers and chillers. Office buildings would have to reduce hours, lighting and comfort levels. Councils would have to keep their sewer and water pumps and sewage and water treatment plants going, so they’d have to entirely cut out street lighting and close public facilities, especially swimming pools. Energy intensive manufacturing – paper making, for instance – would also be cut, so there would be shortages (of toilet paper). Likewise with services such as laundries and dry cleaners. Cafés would have to put up the price of coffees. Farming and food processing , of course, couldn’t be curtailed much at all, so bigger cuts would have to be made elsewhere to compensate.

    These are only a few of the effects off the top of my head. It should be clear that the cut in consumption would lead to major contraction across the economy.

    Fortunately none of this is going to happen, because solar power is now cheap enough and more than abundant enough to keep us in the style to which we are accustomed. And a higher price makes simple investments worthwhile: more insulation, heat recovery for pre-warming, more efficient supermarkets, etc., etc. Price is good at signalling the need to change. Given time and sufficient other resources, our economies (household, national, and global) will adapt, just as ecosystems do.

  13. Jarrah :

    No, it doesn’t. Value is inherently subjective. It can’t be objectively quantified.

    This is probably the worst statement any economist can ever make. If there is a competitive market, at equilibrium, once all credit has been retired, then the price = objective value. At the same time this price is an indication of the social necessary cost of acquiring commodities. [See John Bates CLARK, On the principles of Political Economy and Taxation, 1908 [1899], Ch XXIV, p391

    Subjective values only exist during disequilibrium or with monopoly, incorrect information or customer understanding, or with inequitable provision of debt.

  14. The Clark reference has the wrong title, that is Ricardo’s title. But the point is Clark’s.

  15. I doubt whether those with the recent memory of a Western middle class lifestyle will be prepared to voluntarily cut their energy use by more than 10-20%. Hot showers, a high protein diet, air conditioning, private cars and jet travel are all too good to give up entirely. Conservatives assure us that the other half of the world can not only enjoy that soon but we can all consume like crazy into the indefinite future. However it looks like biophysical constraints like PO and AGW have already started to kick in.

    Our present system is inefficient by choice; for example energy inputs to food production and distribution are about ten times the calorific value of the food. The alternative could be to get 90% of your calories from turnips grown where the back lawn used to be. Using greywater not the good stuff. I doubt many want to do that yet we are headed that way by necessity. Arguably carbon tax is one of just many forms of energy rationing we must face in the near future. Other guises include high food and fuel prices due to supply shortfalls. I don’t see it going smoothly.

  16. @Dominic Meagher

    maybe you could turn that on it’s head and see what the poem was saying

    in this case, John is trying to “force” us to see the world in black and white – energy no problem so let’s focus on climate change

    the world being forced to adjust to a halving of energy consumption

    think that through

    let me assure you, having seen a lot of the world, the only outcome from that will be massive population collapse (ignoring Jeavron’s paradox for now)

    i see the whole post reduced to this:

    let’s worry about one thing we can’t do anything about whatsoever but that perhaps permits us (middle class westerners on high incomes in a country with a tiny population) some time to carry on life thinking we are doing all we can to save the world

    instead of

    worrying about another thing we can’t do anything about whatsoever

    (where both things will lead inevitably to massive population collapse)

    really, the problem is that we humans are stuck in a bind – we need a huge population to support the high degree of specialisation we need to enable us to have professors and technologists that permit the technologies we need to keep everything growing so that everyone can look forward to a nice future

    it aint gonna happen folks

    maybe not tomorrow or maybe not in 50 years

    but sooner or later we have to face population collapse and with it the demise of pretty much everything that we love (fast food, cheap wine, mindless but awesomely entertaining
    movies, politicians that argue about asylum seekers while the world economy teeters on the brink – you know – everything)

    i wonder when people like us will wake up and realise that there are only the following possible futures

    1. population collapse, end of everything we are now – back to subsistence
    2. using bugs or bombs eliminate 50% of the population now to give us more time
    3. find some inexhaustible and totally non-polluting energy source

    i’d guarantee there are more than a few minds contemplating 2.

    i know that there are very few that now believe 3. is possible

    so, let’s give up these silly talks about pointless things like carbon tax

    and focus on what’s really important:

    party on dudes

    might as well


  17. To be clear, this was presented as a thought experiment, not a proposal to seek voluntary reductions. But the implication of the thought experiment is that policies aimed at reducing energy use (whether by taxation, regulation or other methods) are likely to work reasonably well, because there are lots of inessential energy uses on which to economise.

    @Greg, you’re double counting in various ways. If supermarkets cut their lighting in half, and reduced their hours by half, they would reduce energy used in lighting by 75 per cent. So, a more plausible account would be reducing both usage while open and opening hours by 30 per cent. That would be a pain, but as regards opening hours, they’ve increased much more than 30 per cent over the last 20 years or so. And of course, the medium term strategy is to use more efficient lighting systems, fridges and so on. I could keep going, but the point is the same as for households. Reducing energy use by 50 per cent would be inconvenient, but nothing like as bad as reducing other inputs – eg size of the building, or stocks on shelves – by the same proportion

  18. @TerjeP

    Terje says; ‘These “energy theory of value” and energy as “coin of the realm” notions are daft. Energy has negligible monetary properties.’

    I put forward the “energy theory of value” idea not the “coin of the realm” idea. The ideas are rather different, at least initially. There is no suggestion that energy units or counters be employed formally in the near or middle term (and perhaps not ever). However, the odd thing is that right now energy states (as electronic bits and bytes) are used as representations of money value just as a banknote is a representation of money value. Under a fiat currency any unit or counter is possible in theory.

    As an initial research program it might be worth modelling energy flows in the economy and the subsequent embodied energy in all goods and services. This could them be correlated with the money flows (which go in the opposite direction). The degree of correlation or lack of it, as the case may be, should tell us something about the centrality or non-centrality of energy to economic activity from a monetary perspective.* That research would be the first step. Subsequent steps would depend on positive results, if any.

    *Note: Energy is always central from the thermodynamic perspective.

  19. @John Quiggin

    John Quiggin says; “a more plausible account would be reducing both usage while open and opening hours by 30 per cent.” This is in relation to supermarket opening hours.

    I have a question here. Do we not have two competing concerns in this case? Society (and even the supermarket chain) want to save energy, and by implication, money. On the other hand, the supermarket chain has plant and infrastructure (the stores) which will sit idle for longer each day if hours are shortened. I guess the question for the supermarket chain (thinking as a business only) is where is the “sweet spot”. What level of opening hours gives the least costs per unit sold in terms of energy costs, labour costs, capital costs etc. etc.?

  20. @Greg

    Supermarkets would have to halve their opening hours, reduce lighting and air conditioning levels, and shut down half their display freezers and chillers.

    Possibly. One might use LEDs for lighting. I see little problem with a system in which displayed chilled items were fewer. I also like the Idea of stores like JBs and DSE reduce the number of TVs they have on simultaneously. They are all off unless someone hits a button on the shelf underneath and then they stay on for 45 seconds. The plasmas especially generate a lot of heat and are an important reason why the air conditioners have to work as hard as they do.

    Most supermarkets of course have large floor areas (and large rooves) so like the swimming pools (see below) have excellent scope to make good use of geothermal heat pumps. The AC units in shopping centres pump out enormous heat and if instead of pumping this into carparks or up stacks was channelled underground, much of this waste heat could be recovered. Similarly, given the masses of putrescible waste shopping centres generate — all of which has to be hauled away, and much of which decomposes, adding to GHGs, it’s a wonder that localised anaerobic digesters aren’t built, capturing the resultant methane and supplying power to the grid and waste heat to the facility. Fully recycling their waste water would sharply cut their water demand and the powrer required to pump it to treatment stations. And of course, those large roof areas cry out for industrial scale PV, solar hot water, and water harvest.

    And why aren’t more shopping centres also places with high density housing built into them? This would sharply cut the need for on-street parking since after hours, when people get home from work, the car parks are largely redundant. One might add that in high traffic areas like car parks, where speed humps must operate for safety reasons, there is no reason why such devices could not be harvesting energy from moving vehicles. With improvements in energy strorage technology, this too could be a contributor to non-fossil sources of energy supply.

    so they’d have to entirely cut out street lighting and close public facilities, especially swimming pools.

    Again, if you had street lighting controlled by motion sensors then low traffic periods would mean they were off much of the time. Street lighting refers to a time when lighting both in houses was limited and when on motor vehicles was poor, and is probably of doubtful use at the best of times. LEDs at gutter level might actually be more useful than what we have now. If you could cut out light poles, undergrounding power and data supply there would be a significant cut in road trauma and inconvenience to electricity users and disruption to traffic lights when a pole gets hit by a vehicle. As for pools, geothermal heat pumps underneath and large PV on their rooves would seem to be apt. Sure it doesn’t cut primary energy usage, but it replaces it with non fossil HC sourced energy.

    The other thing we need to do is to simply stop buying stuff we don’t need. We don’t need to change our cars every two years. We don’t need to buy whole new wardrobes of clothing every year. Do we really need to be eating so much meat? Drinking so much alcohol? Buying so much technojunk? I don’t think so.

  21. The value represented by bits and bytes in a computer bears no correlation with the energy stored in that state. The energy required to store a representation of $1 is hardly different to that representing $1 billion. You may as well claim that blue ink is worth more than red ink.

  22. Maybe Ikonoclast should have avoided the use of the word “value”.

    Or else, maybe we can just note that: useful energy has value as a commodity, i.e. not that:

    Energy theory of value promises the best quantitative method for value comparisons.

    The comparison has to be based on all the necessary costs of extracting and using energy.

    I cannot see how an “energy theory of value” can ever be applied.

  23. TerjeP :
    The value represented by bits and bytes in a computer bears no correlation with the energy stored in that state. The energy required to store a representation of $1 is hardly different to that representing $1 billion. You may as well claim that blue ink is worth more than red ink.

    Terjep, I did not write that or claim that. You really ought to read what people write. I said, “energy states (as electronic bits and bytes) are used as representations of money value just as a banknote is a representation of money value.” I made the point that they were representations ONLY. It was an aside to my main statements.

  24. 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).

  25. 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.)

    Click to access index03-e.pdf

    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.

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. @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.

  30. @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:

    Click to access Compliance_and_Performance_Report_2008-09.pdf

    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!

  31. 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.

  32. @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.

  34. 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.

  35. 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.

  36. 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.

    Click to access mes.pdf

    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.

  37. @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.

  38. 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.

  39. 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.

  40. 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.

  41. @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.

  42. 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.

  43. 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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