The Energy Efficiency Dilemma

by NJ McGarrigle

How we source our energy is a quandary at the forefront of our minds again in the wake of the natural disasters in Japan, which have left the population exposed to the potentially catastrophic dangers of their nuclear power plants.

Twenty-five years on from the Chernobyl disaster, nuclear power was being considered by many – including environmentalists – as a viable solution in meeting our growing energy consumption; we could use it to move away from our dependency on finite fuels and as a result begin to turn back the clock on global warming.

Now, the fall out in Japan will fundamentally change the nuclear energy debate – yet a question that must also be addressed is how we use our existing energy sources.

Scientists at Trinity College Dublin made a major breakthrough recently in discovering a way to capture and recycle heat that would otherwise be wasted by machines. It is a significant development, as it is hoped this lost heat can be generated into electricity – in a process comparable to breaking down a Lego construction into individual blocks, each of which take on a new energy when separated from the mass.

The research is important as it has the potential to attract international investment and generate jobs if the new coalition government attempts to develop Ireland’s ‘green economy’ and technology for renewable energy – especially now that the world’s leading superpower China has fired the gun on a green growth race.

In typical neo-Communist fashion, the Red State launched a five-year plan this year, which will switch the emphasis of growth from industrial development to an economic blueprint focusing on renewable energy and efficiency. Last year China invested 34 billion dollars in clean technology compared to 18 billion dollars by the US. China is clearly setting itself up to be a world leader in this field and one hopes that our ministers have the innovative thinking in reaching out to try and grab a piece of this huge financial pie.

Broadening the argument, however, there could be a major downside to green schemes and the drive for our machines to be more energy efficient. For if our machines use less energy then will we use them more and as a result negate any environmental benefits?

China is already the world’s number one greenhouse gas emitter and arguably the most polluted nation on earth. If they do succeed in moving away from industrially polluting the planet to a more green future – where machines are more efficient – then could this lead a new environmental threat: excessive consumption, especially considering this is a continent-sized nation with a population of 1.4 billion people.

Energy efficiency has been called ‘the fifth fuel’ (after coal, petroleum, nuclear power and renewables) and is regarded as a cost-free switch in the move to a green-energy economy. Environmental think tanks argue that it is “not a free lunch, but a lunch you are paid to eat”. However, some experts believe that efforts to improve energy efficiency will instead negate any environmental gains – a theory that is illustrated by what is known as the Jevons paradox.

William Stanley Jevons, a 29-year-old Englishman, published a book in the 19th century called ‘The Coal Question’, which argued: “It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.” Jevons referred to Britain’s global iron industry, which was fuelled by coal. He argued if a more efficient way to use coal to create iron was found, then the price of iron would fall, increasing demand for it and thereby requiring more coal to produce it.

To bring the argument into a modern, micro scale, we can look at everyday objects in our homes. In an Irish household, the average fridge uses three-quarters less energy than a 1975 model – despite it being 20 per cent larger and costing a lot less. However, bigger fridges mean we purchase and consume more food, which requires not only more energy to cool store them, but also energy to produce, package and transport these goods. And it does not end there. In the West we now throw out 40 per cent of our food that has gone off (mainly vegetables) and as a pay-off for doing so, we are essentially wasting the energy we have spent to store that food by chucking it out.

(There may be a corollary in our growing obesity rate and large American-styled fridges in the Irish home, but that is for another day).

We can also look at our consumer-driven innovations in the last decade of mobile phones, laptops, mp3 players and the Internet – ubiquitous products we never had to concern ourselves with before, and which are pitched as ‘smart’ technology, yet require vast amounts of energy to function.

English economist Len Brookes has written: “When we talk about increasing energy efficiency, what we’re really talking about is increasing the productivity of energy. And if you increase the productivity of anything, you have the effect of reducing its implicit price, because you get more return for the same money, which means the demand goes up.”

Our cars also validate the Jevons paradox; economical use of fuel does not result in diminished consumption but instead sees an overall increase. Latest models are more efficient than their predecessors and a lot more comfortable as well.  Consequently, we drive longer distances and make journeys more frequently, which again increase our energy use. And more cars on the road mean more maintenance and expansion of our travel network – further expenditure of our finite resources.

It is also sometimes forgotten that air-conditioning – which is standard in many cars now – increases fuel consumption by 20 per cent and environmentalists wonder if we need such a feature, considering Ireland’s moderate climate – one green campaigner pertinently describes air-conditioning in motors as “an indulgent way of moving air from one place to another”.

Increased comfort and efficiency of our cars means we drive more than ever before and as a result are hit where it hurts most right now: at the pumps.

With fuel prices soaring to €1.50 per litre and the price of oil rising continually, Irish drivers will hope the findings of the Trinity research team can soon be put into practice – in the future the research could be used to run electric cars reliably over long distances.

Nevertheless, what will help the future of the planet more – increased efficiency or reduced consumption? Governments, economists and free-trade capitalists readily advocate the former, but maybe we should be looking the other way, by capping our emissions, introducing higher energy taxes or an individual surtax on our energy usage.

We need to step back to see that the key to the environmental argument is more about what is sustainable – and less about using energy more efficiently or developing volatile man-made power, such as nuclear energy, which is a by-product of the nuclear weapons industry left over from the Cold War.

We need to take another approach. Let’s hope our low-energy light bulbs soon start flickering above our heads.


  • Article first appeared in the Sunday Times