I agree with Robert Pollin that the United States must make drastic changes in energy policy if we are to counteract climate change. But the threat of climate change is not the only reason for action. The environmental and human costs of fossil fuel extraction themselves should be sufficient cause for change. People drinking water in West Virginia, mining coal in Turkey, or breathing air in Beijing will probably share that sentiment.
I also agree that the required policy shifts must combine reductions in energy consumption with increases in renewables. But I am even more optimistic than Pollin when it comes to making those changes without sacrificing economic growth, for at least two reasons.
First, data from the last fifty years are encouraging. Historical trends show that U.S. energy consumption per capita is about 15 percent lower now than it was in the late 1970s, and the Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects that even without revolutionary change, it will continue to decrease for the next thirty years. (The rise in total energy consumption is attributable to the roughly 50 percent growth in U.S. population since 1970, not to higher per capita usage.) Even more important, U.S. energy consumption per dollar of GDP is only about 40 percent of what it was in 1950, and the EIA projects that by 2040 it will be reduced by almost another factor of two. So, as Pollin suggests, large decreases in energy consumption have been and can be achieved without cutbacks in GDP or drastic lifestyle changes.
We can also eliminate waste using technology we already have.
Second, though Pollin’s emphasis on improving energy efficiency in buildings, industry, and transportation is prudent, there are other ways of improving efficiency. Most important are recent technological innovations that can reduce consumption by eliminating waste. According to researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, more than 60 percent of energy consumed in the United States is wasted. If much of that waste could be avoided by scaling up technologies that already exist, then we could lower our energy consumption considerably without contracting the economy.
Most wasted energy is lost as heat. Among electrical turbines and internal combustion engines, such energy loss is a consequence of basic thermodynamics, which puts theoretical limits on the efficiency of heat engines, typically around 50 percent. In practice, turbines and engines have even lower efficiencies: for example, according to the EPA, only 14–30 percent of the energy generated by burning gasoline is used to propel vehicles. In contrast, electric cars report energy efficiencies of 88 percent, including losses due to imperfect battery storage. Switching from a car powered by a gasoline engine to a car powered by an electric motor could reduce energy consumption by more than 50 percent without reducing energy-consuming activities.
Of course, if the electricity to power an electric car comes from a conventional fossil fuel–burning power plant, then the negative consequences of fuel burning are simply transferred from the car to the plant, albeit with significant efficiency savings. So the second prong of Pollin’s proposal, scaling up renewable energy, is essential: it eliminates most of the deleterious effects associated with fossil fuel extraction and burning. However, until energy storage and distribution technology improves, the fluctuating nature of renewable energy will require us to maintain some non-renewable sources.
Heat engines are not the only producers of waste heat. Another pervasive example is incandescent light bulbs. As anyone who had an Easy-Bake Oven in the 1960s will remember, incandescent light bulbs generate enough heat to bake a cake. That is because only around 10 percent of the energy used by the bulb is emitted as light, and the remainder is emitted as heat. In contrast LEDs already have efficiencies of up to 80 percent. Switching from incandescent bulbs to LEDs can lead to dramatic reductions in energy consumption without decreasing the amount of emitted light. Similarly, conventional braking mechanisms in automobiles bleed a great deal of heat, but new “regenerative” braking systems recycle energy that would otherwise be lost to friction. And beyond eliminating waste heat, “smart” devices that turn themselves off when not in use and adjust consumption for maximum efficiency can also reduce energy consumption without cutting down on energy-using activities.
Thanks to these and other efficiency improvements, renewable energy would need to replace only half of the fossil fuel energy we currently burn in order to provide all of the power we need. Eliminating waste must be an essential component of any clean energy program, and the good news is that it is easy to achieve. The technology is here. We just have to implement it.