April 3, 2009

Build more: Use more

How do we persuade people to drive less—an environmental necessity—while also encouraging them to revive our staggering economy by buying new cars? The popular answer—switch to hybrids—leaves the fundamental problem unaddressed. Increasing the fuel efficiency of a car is mathematically indistinguishable from lowering the price of its fuel; it’s just fiddling with the other side of the equation. If doubling the cost of gas gives drivers an environmentally valuable incentive to drive less—the recent oil-price spike pushed down consumption and vehicle miles travelled, stimulated investment in renewable energy, increased public transit ridership, and killed the Hummer—then doubling the efficiency of cars makes that incentive disappear. Getting more miles to the gallon is of no benefit to the environment if it leads to an increase in driving—and the response of drivers to decreases in the cost of driving is to drive more. Increases in fuel efficiency could be bad for the environment unless they’re accompanied by powerful disincentives that force drivers to find alternatives to hundred-mile commutes. And a national carbon policy, if it’s to have a real impact, will almost certainly need to bring American fuel prices back to at least where they were at their peak in the summer of 2008. Electric cars are not the panacea they are sometimes claimed to be, not only because the electricity they run on has to be generated somewhere but also because making driving less expensive does nothing to discourage people from sprawling across the face of the planet, promoting forms of development that are inherently and catastrophically wasteful.

--David Owen, "Economy vs. environment", The New Yorker, Mar 30, 2009

So the more electricity that is produced without burning those fossil fuels, the less fossil fuel will be burned, putting less greenhouse-creating goop in the air and therefore easing (or at least not exacerbating) global warming. Right?

No. Wrong.

Or at least doubtful.

Unless the expansion of wind, solar, and other renewable power sources is accompanied by some mechanism to reduce the demand for - and therefore the production of - electricity from coal and oil.

The reason, according to many experts (and not refuted by any) is that the human demand - or at least the American human demand - for electricity is effectively infinite. The more that is produced, the more that will be consumed, as our technological and innovative (and somewhat hedonistic) society creates more electronic gadgets. ...

There is, of course, another way to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases produced by power generation: use less power. That does not require slower economic growth, as demonstrated in one state - this one.

--Jon Margolis, "The wind and the warmth", Vermont New Guy, Apr 2, 2009

wind power, wind energy, environment, environmentalism, Vermont