Monday, May 05, 2008

Rocky Mountain Instititute's "Rebuttal" of Bryce

From the RMI website:

Energy efficiency has been a consistent part of America's energy security policies and increasingly become an essential framework for abating carbon emissions. In fact, the federal government now offers several tax credits for everything from green home improvements to fuel cells.

But the effectiveness of energy efficiency does not go undisputed.

Skeptics such as the Energy Tribune's Robert Bryce point out that total energy use in the United States continues to rise, despite efficiency gains. Per capita, we're using more energy even as sales of hybrid cars increase and more green buildings get erected.

The argument hinges on an economic theory called Jevons' Paradox.

In 1865, the English economist William Stanley Jevons wrote a book called The Coal Question. In it, he observed that the consumption of coal had gone up in England even after more efficient technologies, like an improved steam engine, had been introduced.

Later economic theory moderated Jevons' observation to say that a more efficient technology could create a rebound effect: Some of the efficiency gains are wiped out by greater demand for the resource.

Today's popularity of more efficient vehicles and green home retrofits means it is worth seriously considering if there is evidence for Jevons' Paradox -- or even a significant rebound effect -- that could dampen some of the enthusiasm for these technologies.

Luckily, we are observing only very small rebound effects (if any at all) in the United States. For example, we can look at household driving patterns: While total vehicle miles traveled have increased 16 percent between 1991 and 2001, there is no evidence that owners of hybrid vehicles drove twice as much just because their cars were twice as efficient.

Uh, no. This isn't what Bryce is arguing. Here RMI has turned Bryce's thesis--that we can't "save our way to energy independence"--into a preposterous strawman--that efficiency is bad. Bryce believes that efficiency is very important, but that it is a tool for containing growth in energy usage, not a cure-all that will solve all of our social ills and give us "lunches that we'll be paid to eat," as Lovins has been saying for decades.

Honestly, I think that the events of the past year may be the beginning of the end for RMI. Many of the technologies that Lovins has been pushing since the 1970s--ethanol, fuel cells, hydrogen, biofuels, etc.--have lost their credibility as serious contenders in the energy market. Meanwhile, nuclear power is roaring back, with the first new nuclear plant order in the United States in thirty years, the decision by the UK to build new nuclear plants, and the general trend basically everywhere but Germany and a few other holdouts. I'm not sure how Lovins can maintain much credibility in light of these developments. But seeing how being wrong has never seemed to slow him down in the past, perhaps he'll survive this too.


Brian said...

Lovins has been consistently wrong for decades, so wrong that anyone with any shame at all would long ago have crawled back under the rock he came from. However, this is a "Harvard and Oxford educated" guy who styles himself a "physicist," even though he hasn't published a single paper in the field or completed a single degree program in this or any related discipline. Lovins has no shame.

So, he'll keep on truck'n, sell'n his snake oil. Fortunately for him, his business customers realize the value of his greenwashing and will keep writing him checks, and his fans are too stupid to realize his mistakes.

By the way, Germany is just waiting until the next election. This is obvious from the maneuvering last year, on both sides, over the closure dates of some of their nuclear plants, with the greens wanting to move the dates up, and the utilities wanting to postpone the first closures by trading time from their newer plants.

I predict that after the election, the nuclear phaseout will go the way of the dodo.

Sovietologist said...

I certainly hope you're right about the German plants. Do you expect the election to marginalize the Greens enough so that the nuclear phaseout will become a non-issue?

Brian said...

I would not be surprised if it marginalizes the shaky alliance that resulted in the phaseout. We can already see a backlash in public opinion from too much renewable energy. Germany has some of the highest electricity prices in Europe (up there with Italy and Denmark).

We don't know exactly when the next elections will be, but they will almost certainly be sometime after the first one or two closings, but before the majority. The greens have been openly trying to move up the closure date of some of the plants scheduled to close after the election (using the fire at a German plant last summer as an excuse), and I smell fear. This is an attempt to cut their loses and at least close some of the plants. If they were confident that the alliance supporting the phaseout was going to survive the election, they would not need to propose this.

On the other side, the utilities have wanted for a long time to trade some of the life of their newer plants to extend the life of the plants that will be closed first. Of course, the German government has not let them do this (to them, the trading works only one way). It's pretty clear that the utilities expect the nuclear phaseout to eventually blow over. It's just a question of how much damage is done (i.e., how many perfectly good plants are closed) before that happens.

Rod Adams said...

As a real cynic about the motives behind the closures, I would bet that there is serious pressure behind the scenes to shut down at least one or two plants as soon as possible.

If one of those well operated nuclear plants shuts down, it would open a larger market for the Russian natural gas that supplies about 30% of Germany's electrical power market.

There is a long term plan to expand natural gas's market share when the pipeline under the Baltic Sea is completed, but continuing to operate all the existing nukes or building more would interfere with the success of that plan.

I am fairly sure that Gerhard Schroder still has some friends in the German government and that his present employers - GAZPROM - are fully behind any efforts to ensure "security of demand" that will help make their new pipelines very profitable.