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Energy System, Not Energy Supply
Jamais Cascio, 24 Jan 06

The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research is the UK's premier institution for the study and analysis of both the changing global climate and the steps needed to mitigate the problem. They do an excellent job of clarifying the key issues the UK and the world at large need to confront, and they make a point of questioning the conventional wisdom of how to respond. Dr. Kevin Anderson, a Tyndall analyst, has an editorial at BBC News arguing that the debate over energy sources, particularly over the need for more nuclear power plants, is misdirected. The real issue, he says, isn't energy supply, it's the energy system -- how the power we generate is used.

The notion that we need to look at energy consumption instead of energy source is not a new one. Its most visible advocate has long been Amory Lovins, who once noted that most of us don't buy oil or coal, we buy what we can do with the oil and coal. Similarly, Anderson argues that debates over how much nuclear is needed or the right balance of "clean" coal and wind is far too narrow. He then lays out the conclusions of recent Tyndall research on "decarbonizing" the UK, demonstrating the kinds of improvements possible with a focus on efficiency.

The Tyndall plan focuses on phased improvements in efficiency standards, going after "low-hanging fruit" such as vehicle mileage, replacement of incandescent lights with low-energy bulbs, and a significant reduction of "standby mode" power consumption by home electronic devices. Following the Tyndall plan, the UK would see a 47% reduction of energy demand by 2050, even with 3.3% annual economic growth, expected population growth, and a moderate increase in distance traveled per person. The Tyndall efficiency model also showed a 60% reduction in carbon emissions in the same time frame.

The "standby mode" or "idle power" situation, in particular, is ripe for change. A recent study in the UK showed that the power consumed by electronic devices not in use amounted to around 7 TWh annually, and the Energy Savings Trust calculated that CO2 emissions from standby electronics in the UK amount to 3.5 million tonnes annually.

A focus on efficiency of use is a natural result of a shift from thinking about energy exclusively in terms of supply. The range of options for improving efficiency far and away exceeds the range of supply choices, even when one includes renewables like tidal/ocean power or less-well-known options like distributed microgeneration. As Anderson argues:

...developing and implementing an explicit and enforceable, yet flexible, energy efficiency programme offers real and almost immediate benefits in terms of carbon dioxide emissions, economic competitiveness and energy-service security.

He's absolutely right.

(Via Futurismic)

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Bingo! Jamais, thanks for the clarity with which you state this insight. We want energy services, not energy. If we keep looking for the most efficient, resilient, and cost-effective way to provide those services, we'll get farther, faster, than any grandiose schemes for new energy supplies. This is the figure-ground inversion we need to truly change the world.

Posted by: David Foley on 24 Jan 06

This is also in agreement with Joel Makower approach to investment and how business should function. What is is that you are really buying? How can you provide that at the cheapest, safest, cleanest way? In the end, we waste more than we use. Now, we can save more than we waste and add sustainable jobs to it!

Posted by: Xavier on 24 Jan 06

Not to disagree with my old friend Kevin Anderson or the general comments about energy efficiency and services, but this is still perpetuating a false dichotomy between supply and demand. While looking at the demand side is the neglected half of the story, it is still only half - you can't energy-efficiency your way out of global warming, you need low- or zero-carbon supply too. Better yet, properly integrate the two. The best example I know of innovative thinking in this line is the recent work of Walt Patterson of Chatham House (see for links to his latest publications). In his working papers for a project called 'Keeping the Lights On', he has been developing the concept of 'infrastructure electricity', which follows the logic of on-site power generation to fairly startling conclusions (see By the way, Walt told me tonight that he is in the process of putting all the things he has ever written up on his own website (, which should go live soon. Well worth checking out.

Posted by: Doctor Edge on 24 Jan 06

Wired magazine had an article that talked about the research that Lawerence Livermore Labs did on phantom loads. They concluded that 10%-15% of the electrical useage in California was for phantom loads. Phantom loads being electrical useage by supposedly turned off televisions, vcrs, microwave ovens, etc.

Posted by: gary demos on 25 Jan 06

Well at issue on power is the fac alot of stuff is going to transition to electric power over the next 50 years and we will need more plants to handle the burden.

On top of this future tech devices will use more power. Robots are going to start to grow in number and duties massively and you can bet a few BILLION robots wandering around doing stuff is not gona be low impact.

As home fabircation takes hold delivering the power needed to fab stuff will be an issue.

Home lighthing is still increasing as people find out they realy should get BRIGHT light and thus install 2-3kwatt light arrays. As cities get bigger and desnser and getting sunshine gets harder alot of heavy drain light arrays will be used and its expected that might levels in homes will increase geatly over todays levels.

By 2050 you can expect many homes to have several robots constantly cleaning and patrolling each home... that will use up alot of energy.

In home recycling units that convert some of the waste stream to usable stuff for your home fab unit.. that will eat up energy.

Monitors instead of windows showing nice scenic landscapes.. alresady catching on and gobbling up more and more energy.

Soon to come... a city inside a building where all the air is conditioned and cleaned and everything is secure and safe and blah blah blah.

Prolly the first floating city will be built near china or japan in the next 20 years and then spread like crazy. That will be energy intensive.

And then converting all the old dead systems to new wrking ones will use HUGE amounts of power as we convert for climate change and global warming and such.

Posted by: wintermane on 27 Jan 06



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