Is using less energy actually green?

Is using less energy actually green?

Summary: Helping a failing energy delivery system continue by reducing demand to meet its limits helps in the short term, but raises the barriers to be overcome before positive change can occur.

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TOPICS: Emerging Tech
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Everyone says so, but in reality the more likely answer is no - the greenest thing you can do in areas where regulatory constraints limit electrical power generation and delivery is to use more of it.

Notice that this isn't about about dollar costs -everyone knows that using less costs you less - but about whether reducing your power requirements produces cleaner air, cleaner water, or cleaner land.

Notice too that the obvious correlations don't work: energy use and pollution are inversely, not directly, correlated: the richest areas of the world use the most energy per capita, and are the cleanest - while the poorest areas are both dirtiest and the most energy starved.

The history of green politics isn't conducive to faith in public or media opinion either. It was media support for green activism against nuclear power that led to today's petrochemical dependencies and thus the CO2 those same greens now hold responsible for the putative horrors of global warming. Ethanol, a current political favorite, is considerably dirtier than gasoline, and the green's favorite alternate source: wind power, is probably the dirtiest of all - most wind generators never break even on the energy that goes into making, installing, and maintaining their components; wind inconstancy generally means that almost every watt installed needs a second watt of standby gas power, and the things pollute viewscapes while killing thousands of birds.

You can't use green data either: those same sixties greens who hated nuclear also wanted immediate government regulations to protect the world from global cooling - and they've flunked every independent review of their ability to produce honest numbers since.

But how can the obvious: reduced energy use equals reduced pollution, not be true?

The answer is that reduced use does equal reduced pollution if that reduction is permanent, the capacity isn't taken up by another customer, and the volume change doesn't trigger a negative change in efficiency in the generation and delivery systems.

In reality these conditions are unlikely to ever be met - so the intuitive association between your reduced demand and lower overall pollution is correspondingly unlikely to be realized too.

Worse, the accumulated effect of thirty years of combined green and NIMBY politics means that your decision to use less power contributes to the continuation of an inefficient system - and thus suggests that if enough people increased power demand to trigger system wide infrastructure renewals, the new energy would be so much cleaner that net pollution would decrease despite the increased output.

We know, broad brush, how the economic system reacts to changes in energy demand. In Adam Smith's universe a population decision to reduce energy use forces the industry to react to its own fixed costs by lowering prices - and that causes consumption to increase and therefore prompts renewed investment in infrastructure efficiency.

I don't know of any free markets in energy, but the same effect drives regulated markets except that the regulatory constraints on system change prevent continuous price and supply adaptation - meaning that these stresses build up until released through traumatic change.

For an analogy: think of planetary plates colliding along price/supply fault lines with regulators preventing continuous slippage through micro-seismic events until stresses build up enough to force a cataclysmic breakthrough.

So how do you reduce the impact of a future earthquake? by triggering it before pressures build to catastrophic levels - meaning, on the other side of the analogy, that widespread demand for more power now should reduce the economic dislocation to be created when the inevitable supply panic eventually sweeps away today's regulatory dam.

There's a traditional wisdom version of this: give a man a fish and you teach him to ask for more fish, but teach him to fish and you create a contributing member of society - or, in this case: helping a failing energy delivery system continue by reducing demand to meet its limits helps in the short term, but raises the barriers to be overcome before positive change can happen and thus makes the long term problem, and its effects, worse.

You get the same kind of effect when you intervene in civil wars to feed the starved and disposed - because a population decision to devote all available resources to killing each other means that new resources brought into the environment extend the killing and thus create, on net, more suffering for everybody.

And that brings us to the bottom line: nuclear power is orders of magnitude cleaner and safer than petrochemical generation - meaning that the sooner more of it comes on line, the less the power generation industry's long term impact on the environment will be, and therefore that plugging in an extra rack of Xeons may be better for the environment than almost anything else you could do.

Topic: Emerging Tech

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15 comments
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  • It's counter-intuitive

    but sounds about right. Any time the government gets involved in markets - they tend to stagnate. Having a monopoly means never having to upgrade - just keep charging the same amount (or more) money, and your profits go up (since there is no reinvesting in infrastructure).
    One of the most "modern" nuke plants in the US is in Michigan - Fermi II. It has operated flawlessly for many years. Of course it's predecessor didn't do so well. Fermi I almost went critical - inspiring David Bowie's famous song "Panic in Detroit" (and feeding the 60's anti-nuke fervor). But that was the "old" days when we were learning how to "tame" nuclear power, today we know SO much more about how reactors work.
    The problem still remains of how to dispose of the waste. I have a proposal that would work extremely well - although NIMBY people will shoot it down. Detroit sits on top of hundreds of MILES of tunnels! The salt mines of Detroit have extracted much over the course of a hundred years. Having nuclear waste stored a mile underneath Michigan in salt tunnels makes too much sense. It would spark a moribund economy, and raise the stature of the mayor of Detroit - who is undergoing some really bad publicity recently.
    If I were the mayor of Detroit, I would make this proposal. And just because I could do it, I wouldn't put waste under my OWN city - I would place it under CANADA! Yes those tunnels know no international boundaries. If anything ever went wrong, I would stay away from Windsor . . . ;)
    Roger Ramjet
    • To sell that idea in Windsor (Canada) just

      Say that President Bush is against it - and allow Canada to tax it.
      murph_z
      • Have the NDP back it

        Their standing in Ontario is weak, maybe if they supported something "international" . . .
        Roger Ramjet
    • waste

      http://sciam.com/article.cfm?chanID=sa006&colID=1&articleID=000D5560-D9B2-137C-99B283414B7F0000

      Fermi I was a fast breeder and Fermi II is not. The waste problem almost disappears with breeder reactors because all of a sudden all that waste we've produced with our existing plants turned into fuel. We wouldn't even need to mine more for a very long time.
      Erik Engbrecht
      • Not much waste

        unless you're counting the thousands of gallons of radioactive liquid sodium that explodes when exposed to water. Fermi I used sodium, that still sits in a repository - somewhere.
        As for better nuclear technology, I'm all for it (I did apply for government "fellowships" for researching nuclear power - I didn't get accepted . . .).
        Roger Ramjet
  • RE: Is using less energy actually green?

    What about solar alternatives and development?
    ridingthewind
  • Cleaning up.

    Correcting:

    Many greens do not favor ethanol. Aside from the lack of gain for the environment, they have noticed that society is allowed to continue almost unaffected. People have not been forced to give up autos and move to the city. Worse, the human population might continue to rise.

    No, the goal is artificial creation of conditions in third world countries, with the assumption that people will respond to straitened circumstances by having fewer children.

    This isn't about economic solutions; it's about ridding the world of people.


    Similarly incorrect, you wrote:

    There???s a traditional wisdom version of this: give a man a fish and you teach him to ask for more fish, but teach him to fish and you

    [increase the risk of over-fishing]

    create a contributing member of society -

    or, in this case: helping a failing energy delivery system continue by reducing demand to meet its limits helps in the short term, but raises the barriers to be overcome before positive change can happen and thus makes the long term problem, and its effects, worse.

    [End quote.]

    Restated, conserving to reduce current demand makes meeting future demand more difficult.

    Expanding on that, consistent planning to meet demand is much less disruptive than responding to crises.

    In a world concerned with how well people live, you'd be right.

    Your contention assumes - inadvisably to some - that capacity must eventually be increased, instead of reducing demand more and more by eliminating the modern conveniences as necessary.

    The latter principle is why some people object to building new roads to alleviate traffic congestion: people will use the roads. Much better to pay no attention so that the situation will become arduous enough that people will leave their cars.

    And who cares about how people feel about their lives or what they would choose to do? Their betters know better.


    But finally you do argue correctly, against humans.

    You wrote:

    You get the same kind of effect when you intervene in civil wars to feed the starved and disposed - because a population decision to devote all available resources to killing each other means that new resources brought into the environment extend the killing and thus create, on net, more suffering for everybody.

    [End quote.]

    Yes, any resources dedicated to making it possible for people to do what they want to do facilitates people doing what they want to do. Whether that's killing each other or, worse, enjoying themselves in ways that some might not approve.

    As Lenin said to the acquaintance who gave money to a beggar, That was a mistake; you're delaying the revolution.

    Of course, the introduction of resources to a killing zone can actually save lives, unless the resources are diverted and changed into something useful for killing.
    So, Murph, your statement is simplistic.

    Whether human activities can be approved requires complex calculations, unless one has the simple view that any choices different from his own are necessarily reprehensible.

    The self-righteous have that relief, to make up for all their (happy) failures to get what they want.
    Anton Philidor
    • Oversimplified, myself.

      Though it may not seem so after that long a post.

      Principles are not relative. Whether an action is approved or disapproved is not based on context or the views of the person doing the action.

      But once the action is approved or disapproved, the response to the person who acted should consider... extenuating circumstances.
      Anton Philidor
      • Bitter, bitter.. (and I don't mean please )

        but I know how you feel.
        murph_z
  • quite wrong

    Not that the greens are right...or at least for the right reasons.

    Increasing civilizations ability to generate power is important. It is necessary to civilization to advance.

    But it is not sufficient.

    The ability to control power, especially to apply it precisely, is equally important.

    Efficiency is really about having better control over the power you use - because you control it better you waste less.

    Consequently, continueing to build to meet demand without pursuing efficiency is as short sighted as pursuing efficiency without expandind the power base.
    Erik Engbrecht
    • Sure - but doesn't "green" conservation

      just produce the worst of both worlds?

      I'm not defending wasting energy as smart - I'm saying that the way to get cleaner energy is to upgrade the generation and distribution systems and that green politics combines with NIMBYism to make using more power more wastefully the best way of making that happen.
      murph_z
  • So you're volunteering...

    To store the waste in your back yard. How generous of you.

    I hope you consulted with the neighbors and Her Majesty's Government.
    John L. Ries
  • Yucca Mountain, Nevada a better repository

    Yucca Mountain in Nevada would be a better storage location for nuclear waste ... it's much farther from inhabited areas. Of course, with Harry Reid being the senate majority leader, we can kiss good-bye the right thing to do.
    __howard__
    • Actually...

      ...those of us in Utah are wondering how the waste is going to get to Yucca Mountain and what precautions are going to be taken to insure it doesn't leak out and contaminate the local environment before it gets there. Seems to me that a number of other states (including Nevada) should be equally concerned.
      John L. Ries
  • Is Murph a closet economist?

    Great post! You sound more like an economist than an IT guy though...
    blinddog