Why Conservation Will Not Reduce Energy Demand

By Robert Maynard  

Robert Maynard

In the debate over energy policy those who oppose increasing our supply by renewing Vermont Yankee’s license, often cited conservation as an alternative which would reduce demand. Of course conservation and the efficient use of energy is a good idea that has its own merits, it really does not follow that this will reduce demand.

After the Three Mile Island meltdown of the uranium core on March 28 1979 in Pennsylvania, most of the opinion makers agreed that this marked the end civilian nuclear power in the United States. This conclusion was reached despite the fact that the TMI containment vessel had done its job and prevented any significant release of radioactivity. The answer to our energy needs was going to efficiency and the use of renewable sources of power.

In their book “The Bottomless Well”, Peter Huber and Mark Mills point out the paradoxical fact that greater efficiency in the use of energy actually increases demand over time. In their analysis of the use of energy over the time period from 1979 to 2003 they noted that efficiency increased throughout this period, very rapidly in fact. “Car engines, light bulbs, refrigerator motors-without exception, they all contrived to do much more, with much less”. At the same time, energy demand greatly increased.

This fact is explained in one of their “seven great energy heresies”. In essence, they make the claim that “The more efficient our technology, the more energy we consume. This proposition seems counter intuitive, but the facts seem to support their claim. They argue that more efficient technology lets more people do more, and do it faster. The efficiency gains are swamped by the fact more people are doing more things with energy and doing it faster. New uses for more efficient technologies multiply faster than the old ones get improved. To curb consumption, you would actually have to lower efficiency, not raise it. Of course, doing so would mean lowering the standard of living for average Americans. The efficient use of energy is important because it allows us to be more productive and raises our standard of living, but it does NOT reduce energy demand, unless of course we intend to stop economic growth and rising living standards.

One of the most obvious examples of this phenomenon is seen in the computer industry. The first computers were huge energy hungry monsters with less computing power than today’s laptops. Modern computers have far more computing power and use far less energy than their ancestors. The increase in computing efficiency has greatly increased the use of computers. The result of this greatly increased use is that though individual computers now use far less energy than the first computers, the overall energy consumption of computers is far greater now than when they were first developed. This example holds true throughout any growing, modern economy.

This brings us to the unavoidable fact that maintaining a rising standard of living will mean finding an ever-increasing supply of inexpensive, reliable energy. Energy efficiency is important, but it should in no way be seem as a substitute for increasing our energy supply. Furthermore, as new technologies make our economy even more dependent on electricity, we are going make every effort to insure that we can meet the growing demand for electric power in the new age of the electrification of our economy.

A quick look at the charts of the growth of energy sources used to power the U.S. electrical grid illustrated in the Bottomless Well’s preface shows decisively that renewables have drastically failed to contribute much to our energy needs. During the period from 1979 to 2003, despite the hype and government subsidies. About 0.013 percent of the U.S. total electrical consumption was produced by solar. Wind power contributed about 0.27 percent. There were subsidies, tax breaks, and government-funded research, but most of the private capital pursued conventional fuel. Fossil and nuclear fuels still completely dominate energy supply in the United States, just as they do in most industrialized nations. Nor does it look very realistic that this is going to change anytime soon.

All Vermonters should keep this in mind when they hear arguments from opponents of renewing Vermont Yankee’s license. We are being told now that we can get along fine without Vermont Yankee by employing energy conservation and developing renewable sources of fuel. This is the same argument that the so-called experts made in 1979 and it did not work out for us then. Is there any reason to believe that it will now? If anything we should be expanding the use of power sources like Vermont Yankee. By all means, let people who are so inclined develop renewable energy sources. We can use all the power sources we can get. At the same time, let us not be naive enough to swallow once again the argument that such sources along with conservation, can replace a proven source of relatively inexpensive and reliable power.