Is Energy Efficiency like a Treadmill?


Will energy efficiency be like a treadmill that never stops?  Is that a good thing or a bad thing?  The idea of “negawatts” and investing in energy efficiency has been around for a long time.

When I was in grad school Amory Lovins of the Rocky MFeatured imageountain Institute came and did a talk on negawatts and pushed the case for investing in energy efficiency instead of large new generators.  He said it was cheaper to reduce energy than investing in large generation.  In Manitoba, where I was at the time, a land of large hydro electricity and lots of potential and clean sources of power, it was not clear how the message was received.  Manitoba Hydro went on to launch one of the first energy conservation programs in the country (Powersmart) while at the same time examining which next big dam to build.  This was even though the big dams that were built in the 1960’s and the 19070’s –  the time of the mega project in Canada had significant unintended consequences.  Not unexpected as they significantly altered the flow of the Churchill River so that it flowed down a different river (The Churchill River Diversion) and flooded the land of several First Nations.  Of course as nowadays, the business model of Manitoba Hydro and Quebec Hydro is to export as much clean power as possible.  In the 1980’s, it was more about exporting power and now it is about exporting “clean” power.

After the Amory Lovins speech being inspired I went back and did a paper for a course using a scientific American article showing the negawatts (could have been this one – paywall) that could be generated in Manitoba rather than building the next big dam – Conawapa. That was the first supply curve for energy efficiency that I had seen.

The underlying message that Amory Lovins made to us remains the core reason why utilities in all countries pursue energy conservation and efficiency programs.  If anything the argument has been strengthened based on the experience over the last 20 years.  It remains significantly cheaper and less risky to invest in energy efficiency than to build new generation.  OF course when these programs started they were targeted at large industrial users or homes and residences.  Now more and more energy efficiency is starting to target commercial and institutional buildings and all aspects of power use in these buildings.  There were far more barriers as well to financing and accessing capital and that is why the utilities tend to run programs to incent energy efficiency.

I have heard that it takes 30 years for an invention to be proven in the lab to get to the broader marketplace.  Just now in 2015, there is finally starting to be booming or at least the start of a booming market place in energy efficiency.  The private sector is investing capital and there are now a number of companies working to lower the barriers to investing in energy efficiency.  These include companies like Noesis, HASI, Mercatus and the numerous other solutions providers that have arisen.  All of these institutional infrastructure have started to provide the tools and language and trust that the marketplace to needs to realize the returns, mobilise the capital and educate the marketplace on the benefits and returns of investing in energy efficiency.

The energy efficiency market is here to stay and in some ways it is just going to get bigger.  As technology progresses, the existing building stock gets bigger and bigger, opportunities will always remain for reducing energy and saving money and having these upgrades financed through the savings, particularly in a world where electricity prices appear to keep increasing and where there is uncertainty around the price of fossil fuels.  In addition, as societal values continue to change and value the environment more and more, there will be an increased value put on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and this naturally implies less energy use and increased efficiency.

I have more to say about the treadmill analogy in a future post.

A failure to imagine…Dreams of a low carbon future?

dreams of alow carbon future

Are we in the midst of a failure of the imagination?

So many of the approaches to trying to inspire action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and address climate change have been taking a “technocratic” approach.  We analyse the situation, talk about costs and benefits, technological solutions, wedge analysis and the list goes ever on.  Over the last 20 years during all of this analysis very little if any change has taken place that could be linked to this analysis.  The argument could be made that the regional and state carbon pricing that we are seeing (cap and trade or carbon pricing) and much of the technology development and generation around renewable energy mostly solar and wind are steps that can be directly linked to the “technocratic” analytical approach.

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However, I talk to people in my family and friends who are living their lives not focussed on climate change and one of the largest feelings is powerlessness – a feeling of lack of there is nothing that I can I do about it.  Part of this is what I briefly discussed in an earlier blog post on how the design of our society and cities is designed around a paradigm which does not include any consideration of climate change – This institutional and development momentum has many names and the for along time the technocratic approach has also recognized this where it is called “rounding the baseline” .

I think we need something bigger than an analytical approach which appeals to only a small number of people.  We need an approach which lays out a future which people can embrace and engage, which is positive and people can see themselves and their children in, which is equitable and has many other aspects.  Feel free to let me know what these other aspects should be in the comments section. I am not espousing for a not realistic utopian vision of the future, but more of a realistic positive vision not haunted by disaster scenarios and fear or anchored to a space opera fantasy of escaping to the stars.

At my day job, I have been involved in some discussions about deep carbon reductions for Canadian cities to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050.  One fo the points made by one fo the attendees was that we need a vision of the future which is not defined by the need to be low carbon.  It needs to be a vision of the future which addresses people’s needs and dreams, is postive and people can see themselves in it.

In my view this also needs to be a realistic vision articulating the needs and wants of people as well as understanding that people are not going to go backwards in their living conditions.  To me this means that they will still want to have some form of personal transportation, the IT sector and the communiciations embodied by the smart phone will continue to be a part of our lives and people will continue to want to explore innovation, have fun, be artistic and creative and develop new tools and toys.

The implicit assumption under this vision is that resources and energy will not become excessively expensive as any increase in pricing which could potentially impact quality of life will induce innovation, smart use etc. – really the heart of the modern industrial competitive capitalistic(?) economy.  This also assumes that there is no dramatic change in governance in these modern economies either to a socialistic centrally planned economy or to a religious nonscientific governance and economy. Human ingenuity will continue to deliver increased quality of life within the constraints that are dictated by resources and values.

My question is where is this vision being explored?  The place where it should be explored is in art, painting. performance, literature, comics, manga etc.

Where is the low carbon economy and our future being explored and teased apart?.  Where is the human imagination being used to explore these futures.

One literature area which I know well is science fiction.  To large extent extent however science fiction tends to not be sophisticated and mostly either disaster climate science fiction or a technocratic vision where science and technology deliver humanity to space.  However, one vision I think is too pessimistic and I think it is time to move beyond fear to motivate change and the other one is too optimistic and escapist.

In the art world, there is some thinking and visioning going on, specifically

Interview with the editor of the graphic comic shown above

Is this lack of imagination holding us back as a group or society from being able to imagine steps and actions that can be taken to address climate change and move us to a future that is positive and low carbon?

I am sure there are lots of other places and domains where this is starting to be imagined and I would love to hear of them.

Thanks for listening!

Timeline to get to a low carbon economy

Steps to a low Carbon Economy

Welcome to my first blog post in awhile…As I have mentioned I hope to do this semiregularly.  My goals are to learn how to write better, take a few risks and put myself out there and get involved in a more public manner about how to get to a low carbon economy..

How will our society change happen and what are the steps needed to be taken to get to a low carbon economy.  What has to happen so that our behaviour changes in a substantive manner so that our actions no longer add to the weight of all of our previous actions and make climate change a worse and greater threat than it already is.

Often I want to think that there is one silver bullet that will allow our society to in one swoop start fixing the problem.

Maybe the silver bullet is education, if we could just convince everyone that it was a problem through logic and then get and persuade everyone to agree that this is problem. If everyone knew that climate change was happening and the impacts from it, surely they would change their behaviour.  They would believe the scientists and say yes and change their behaviour, think about choices and change.  Of course, this is not what happens and for many reasons.  One of course being that not everyone agrees that scientists are this noble creature with pure instincts and a completely rational perspective on the world.  Then there are competing interests which conspire to undermine the experts views and seize on every uncertainty and yes error to sow dissent and uncertainty.  While I have not read the “Merchants of Doubt”, based only on the title, it strikes me that is much of what the book is about.

If we all were educated and convinced about the problem or even if some mystical policy makers were to design a bunch of “nudges”, then maybe we could change our behaviour and be able to reduce our impact on the planet and create less greenhouse gases. There is a big but here of course, the way, our societies and our cities are designed and built from a basic level including neighborhood planning, being built around the car as a mode of personal transportation, expansion based municipal tax regimes, not accounting for full costs in the purchasing decisions that we make, to the availability of information makes it very difficult to even make choices to reduce our impact on the planet.  Do we sell our house and move into the downtowns? Do we move to the country? What are the tradeoffs from a climate perspective?  What are the trade-offs right now? Maybe I need a house to take care of my parents and the only locations where that is available requires our family to have two cars and drive to work every day, and besides the transit system in our city is lousy?

Then there is the information gap, how does anyone know what is the preferred alternative from a long term perspective cloth washable diapers or disposable diapers?  Washing dishes by hand or in the dishwasher?  Renting or buying? Shampoo 1 vs shampoo 2 etc.   First of all, the information is not available unless one can do extensive research on the various alternatives on line and then one needs to know all of the assumptions that the researchers are doing in determining the best approach and what if my situation is different than the example studied by the researcher.  And then even if the information for all of these decisions was available at the tip of a click on my smart phone, do I really have to do this research and thinking for every small and large decision that I am making in my life, not to mention that my decisions to buy a product or services will also include a set of other aspects which are arguable more important – will it do what I want it to do? Will it last as long as I need it? What is the price? Is that what I am prepared to spend on it? Information, decisions  —ahh! Can I not just have a little fun – Should I buy beer, wine, gin, vodka ahhhh!  Will my decision even make a difference so I buy product A instead of produce B, will my small difference impact the future.  Doubtful?

As part of this thinking, I have developed the following schematic which shows some of the steps that society will and must take to address the climate change problem.  I have put them in a rough order but clearly there could be countries where the change occurs in a different order.  The key steps are:

  • Manmade climate change is an accepted reality
  • There are obvious and significant impacts associated with climate change. This leads to increased public concern, protests, development of pubic policy and government commitments
  • Civil Society and NGO’s start to take action
  • Society has accepted that full costs need to be accounted in some way
  • Governments start to put a price on carbon
  • Investment Funds and other private sources of capital start to invest in a low carbon economy
  • Infrastructure is designed and built to address the full costs associated with it
  • Behavioural change
  • Generation changeSteps to a low Carbon Economy

This infographic is not comprehensive and jurisdictions will take a different path and these steps in a different order to eventually get to a low carbon economy and I have most certainly left off a few steps.  Comments and additions are welcome.