Saturday, June 25, 2005

an optimistic view

Two of today's headlines over at Energy Bulletin struck an optimistic note. The writer talked about the power of increasing our energy efficiency by one or two percent. Over time, these incremental improvements have a huge impact.

The first is an interview interview with Jamais Cascio, one of the founding members of the worldchanging project. The second is a piece by Cascio on his site. The interview covers a wide range of topics, but I would like to highlight his discussion of energy issues.

Since 1845, the amount of energy required to produce the same amount of (cost-adjusted) GNP has steadily decreased by about 1% per year. That's through relative neglect, with efficiency a side-benefit of other technological improvements. But guess what? During the 1970s, the last time we had an "energy crisis," efficiency improved by 4% per year. A 2% rate would be totally achievable. And a 2% rate would make a huge difference:

With 1% annual improvement, population stabilizing as around 10 billion, and overall increase in standards of living to EU levels, the globe would still be using four times as much energy in 2100 as today. By bumping up overall efficiency improvement to 2% averaged over the next century, we'd cut that down to just 40% more than the present. And if we could push to 3% averaged over the century--still very possible, and less than we've anaged in the recent past--we'd actually end up using half our current levels of energy.

Think about that. Everyone on the planet--10 billion people, a bit more than the UN estimate for the end of the century--with Western lifestyles ... and using half the amount of energy we use today. All by paying slightly more attention to efficiency in our designs.
This is like the power of compounding interest--small changes over time net big results. This is true on the small scale as well--you can put it to work in your own home and reap the benefits for your own energy bills. At either level, it points to the importance and power of individual action--we can make a difference. We can vote for more efficiency by talking to our representatives and by making educated purchases. Design matters.

The second essay focuses on the sister-issue to peak oil: global warming. It looks at efficiency in terms of staying under the problem threshold of 440ppm of carbon.

It's pretty straightforward: our carbon output depends on how much power we use, how efficiently we use it, and how "dirty" the production is. Recall that current atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are just under 380 parts per million, and that the general consensus among climatologists is that (looking just at CO2), the climate is up for some serious problems once we hit the 440ppm level. With the Kaya Identity, we can calculate just what combination of factors would keep us below that level.

The math isn't hard -- it's just multiplication -- but charting it out over course of the next century can get a bit tedious. Fortunately, for a class in the Geosciences Department at the University of Chicago, Professor David Archer put together a Kaya Calculator allowing you to plug in preferred figures for each element and see what results.
Cascio goes on to explain that the getting necessary amount of energy from carbon-free sources to stay under 440ppm is not as impossible as it might seem if we plug in a higher rate of annual improvement in efficiency, just like he spoke about in the interview. Our default rate is 1%, but if we increase it to 2% we need to get less energy from carbon-free sources because the overall consumption drops. If we make a 3% change, then its is possible to stabilize at 350ppm, a much safer level.

While Cascio does believe we need to create carbon-free energy sources, his point is that working on the efficiency side of the equation will make a huge difference.

Of course he is assuming a stable economic, social and industrial base for the rest of the century--assuming that we have time to make these changes before the consequences of our inefficiencies becomes criticbut newsnews that small changes can make a difference is always good.

As Engineer-Poet posted in the comments section (worth reading):

Zeroing carbon
Is not so hard as some think
It can be easy

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