Energy Efficiency: Running to stand still?

Pickering Traction Engine Rally, P. StevensonIs energy efficiency a key factor in reducing greenhouse emissions?

Matthew Taylor of the RSA thinks home energy efficiency should take priority, and Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute is also very keen on large scale efficiency gains.

The Jevons Paradox is the idea formulated in 1865 that making coal-burning more efficient will lead inexorably to the burning of yet more coal. Newcomen’s steam engine dramatically increased the use of coal in England and William Jevons’ (1835-1882) book The Coal Question noted this. but Jevons  also saw that James Watt’s more efficient version was what made coal-burning really take off, truly inaugurating the ‘age of steam’. He wrote: Continue reading “Energy Efficiency: Running to stand still?”


Contingency Plans for Peak Oil

Should national governments make contingency plans in case of peaking oil? In a recent report of an interview he did with Fatih Birol, head of the IEA, the journalist George Monbiot appears shocked there is no such plan for the UK. Why?

In about 1973 you could collect three vouchers from the side of a cornflakes packet and send off for a little plastic model of a North Sea oil rig. For a child, this was the brave new frontier, the UK’s answer to the space program. It was exciting. And even then it was common knowledge we had ’30 years’ of oil so there was no need to worry about the future. Since then, we’ve always had ’30 years of oil’ because most policy makers saw this not as a prediction about reality but merely as code for ‘not on the policy radar, ever’. Then (after 30 years, note) North Sea oil began its steep and irreversable decline and policy makers were actually surprised.
Unfortunately for Reason with a capital R, humans don’t look at the facts and then decide what is going on. Instead we collect and filter data on the basis of preconceived notions of what must surely be going on. Egalitarians such as George Monbiot generally believe things must be running out and our options are narrowing. The by-line to the article says he was ‘shocked and alarmed’. He would be – it’s in the egalitarian job description. In contrast, Individualists are quite sure they know that there are limitless opportunities just waiting to be unlocked by human ingenuity and that all talk of scarcity is defeatist nonsense. Then there are the Hierarchists and the Fatalists who have their own take on the argument. These four poles are the four ‘cultural biases’ of grid-group cultural theory. An understanding of this goes a long way towards making sense of the way issues such as peak oil and global warming are such a lightning rod for debates about how society ought to be organised. A great primer on the basics of grid-group is Christopher Hood’s The Art of the State (1998), and the FourCultures blog looks at the world through a grid-group lens.
At the very least, this approach helps us recognise that we’re not really debating how much oil there is. We’re really promoting conflicting visions of social organisation, and using oil (or carbon dioxode, or whatever) as the pretext.

Peak Oil talk: has it peaked?

According to Nielsen’s trend monitor, BlogPulse, weblog mentions of ‘Peak Oil’ themselves peaked on June 27 2008.

In spite of such compelling evidence, sceptics argue that supplies of Peak Oil opinion are actually unlimited and will never run out. Others are more cautious and warn that not talking about it won’t make the issue go away. They also warn that if demand for Peak Oil talk did ever outstrip supply, the blog would be a very different place from the blog we have always known.

Though the trend seems clear, it’s too early to tell yet whether this really is a peak, or whether we’re seeing instead early indications of a less radical ‘undulating plateau’.

Experts note that this pattern is fully compatible with the well-known ‘Hubbert curve’ hypothesis of resource extraction, and that M. King Hubbert himself would have predicted the present shortfall in Peak Oil blogging- if only he had remembered to predict the invention of the blog itself.

To avert an impending Peak Oil blog crisis, many American bloggers are considering asking their OPEC counterparts to increase production of views about Peak Oil, although there is widespread concern that this may still be too little, to late. It has even been suggested that opinion-producers could dilute their blogs using so-called ‘advanced recovery technology’. In this way, Peak Oil talk could be sustained well beyond current expectations.

The opinion of this author is that even though we may indeed have exhausted half of all the words about Peak Oil that will ever be written, we won’t run out completely for at least another, oh, let’s say thirty years.

Furthermore, absolute shortages of Peak Oil talk are highly unlikely and in any case can be avoided by means of substitutes such as unconventional Peak Oil talk. We may not know what this is yet, but that certainly won’t stop us from talking about it.

And if all else fails we can always talk about peaks in many other commodities – a trend already clearly identifiable among key opinion-formers.

One thing is certain: the current lull in Peak Oil talk has nothing whatever to teach us about our amazingly short-term view of energy resources, which stops us thinking any further than this week’s prices at the pump, and which encourages us to believe that as soon as oil prices drop slightly we can all go back to talking about Paris Hilton.

So relax Peak Oil pundits, as ever there’s nothing to worry about. Just remember you read it here first.