Sunday, November 19, 2006

A bit of support for my hypothesis

A few weeks ago I posted about the unintended consequences of increased energy efficiency - namely, that increased efficiency (or low cost cheap power or fuels), while it would decrease consumption for a given task, would actually lead to greatly increased energy consumption overall.

I made a not-so-rigorous argument in a not-too-coherent manner, but I've just read a book (The Bottomless Well - The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy by Huber and Mills) that spends much of its pages making precisely the same point with much more data and rational than my mere conjecture contained.

I don't quite agree with all of its assertions. For example, it correctly points out that waste is necessary, that you cannot have perfect efficiency in, well, anything. According to the laws of thermodynamics, this is absolutely correct (and is also why only 2-15%, depending on how you measure, of the raw energy available in a gallon of gasoline actually gets converted into forward motion for a car). But because this inefficiency is unavoidable and a key side effect of extracting work from energy, they claim that waste is therefore "virtuous." That's a stretch to me - just because it is vital doesn't mean you want any more of it than you absolutely have to have.

But most of these disputes are quibbles; I thought that overall the book was quite enlightening in describing the history of human energy consumption, the importance of energy to our economy, and the importance of using energy to extract and refine energy itself, all using compelling data to make some rather counterintuitive points.

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