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Power, Defined as Energy Use Per Unit Time, Correlates to Prosperity

Rod Adams's picture
President and CEO Adams Atomic Engines, Inc.
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  • Aug 8, 2010

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Ever since the first oil price shocks of the 1970s, it has been fashionable for some energy market observers to sagely recommend conservation and energy efficiency as the cheapest, quickest form of new energy supply. Amory Lovins famously gave this response to energy challenges the name “negawatts”.

Conservation and efficiency are attractive notions – people raised during the Depression and their children often decry other people’s way of living as wasteful. Everyone likes the idea of getting something for nothing. A certain portion of the pundit population loves the idea that altering other people’s energy use patterns will reduce overall demand, lower prices and eliminate the cost of having to build any new facilities to supply more power. The only problem is that this seductive idea does not work.

As Meredith Angwin recently explained in her heartfelt post titled It’s the Energy. Why I Love Nuclear there is a direct, unmistakeable correlation between the per capita amount of energy consumed each year and the overall prosperity level. That makes engineering sense to me since the very definition of “power” is the amount of energy consumed per unit time. People who, on average, consume more energy each year are, on average, more powerful people.

They tend to be able to make more choices for themselves, live where they want to live, buy goods that suit them, and invest in such wonders as clean water, childhood education systems, and refrigeration. The implications of putting power (energy per unit time) into the hands of more people are incredible; here is the way Meredith explained it:

Simply put, women in poor countries have terrible lives. Many children, many children dying, little opportunity for education, grinding poverty. Prosperity (being above the “prosperity” line in the graph) improves women’s lives immensely.

Energy is also defined as the capacity to do work; populations that consume more energy each year can do more work than those who consume less energy. They can spend more time doing higher level tasks and less time gathering firewood and drinking water – they can harness “energy slaves” to do that work for them. In the US, the average total power consumption (not just electricity) is about 11 kilowatts per person, 24 hours per day, 365 days per year. An adult male can produce about 100 watts for 16 hours per day; our average energy consumption is roughly equivalent to full control of the work output of 160 people. That number has fallen considerably since the 1970s.

(Aside: I understand that there are examples of places where the correlation between official energy use and prosperity seems to disprove the the general rule, but those anomalies usually disappear when statisticians properly attribute the energy content of imported goods. Coal, oil, gas or uranium consumed in manufacturing goods for export should rightly be assigned as providing some “energy slaves” for the customer, as well as some for the producer. End Aside.)

Many of the conservation and efficiency fans are celebrating these days since the total quantity of energy consumed in the US each year has, for the first time in history, dropped for two years in a row. Of course, I am fairly certain that there is a substantial portion of the population that would dearly love for the country to break out of its long lasting recession and get back to the business of producing increasing prosperity – which requires work, which means more energy consumption.

Here is a quote from the Energy Information Agency’s Annual Energy Outlook for 2010 (pg. 55) that provides, in rather antiseptic language, a description of why US energy efficiency has improved while the average worker compensation and prosperity has decreased. It also paints a depressing picture for the future, if current trends continue, which is what the analysts at the EIA are taught to assume in making their projections.

Energy intensity (Btu of energy use per dollar of real GDP) also falls as a result of structural changes and efficiency improvements. Since 1990, a growing share of U.S. output has come from services and less from manufacturing. In 1990, 74 percent of the total value of output came from services, 6 percent from energy- intensive manufacturing industries, and the balance from the non-energy-intensive manufacturing industries (e.g., agriculture, mining, and construction). In 2008, services accounted for 78 percent of total output and energy-intensive manufacturing only 5 percent. Services continue to play a growing role in the Reference case, accounting for 82 percent of total output in 2035, with energy-intensive manufacturing accounting for less than 4 percent. In combination with improvements in energy efficiency, the shift away from energy-intensive industries pushes overall energy intensity down by an average of 1.9 percent per year from 2008 to 2035.

For the advocates of conservation and efficiency, it appears to be a good thing if GDP as measured in dollars increases while energy use decreases, but the only way that works is if America continues a 20 year long trend of sending its manufacturing enterprises somewhere else. Our GDP numbers might look okay if we keep employing lawyers, waiters, bankers, waitresses, consultants, and cooks here in the US. In a manufacturing enterprise, wages tend to be fairly high for everyone; a services based economy can have a higher average income with ever increasing disparity between the high income earners and the people who end up serving them.

Count me as someone who believes that more power is a good thing – especially when it is clean power that requires little material input because the fuel source is incredibly dense. Uranium, plutonium and thorium all contain at least 2 million times as much energy per unit mass as oil; they are abundant, available and able to be harnessed to do work for all people.

Please ask the people who celebrate the potential demise of large scale clean energy projects that have proven potential to provide people the power needed for increased work-driven prosperity for the next 60-80 years to explain how they can consider themselves to be liberals who ostensibly value the rights of all humans and fight for equality for women, minorities and the underprivileged.

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Paul O's picture
Paul O on Aug 8, 2010

I’m happy to read these thoughts from you, as they seem to mirror some of mine.

I have often argued in some other forums that we should not work to tie our selves to some “Green” or any other kind of Ideal in Energy Production.

Energy types and energy production should not be ideological mandated or prefered. What we need is for us to be able to produce prodigious amounts of Energy, prodigiously Safely, and at prodigiously Cheap rates.

It does sometimes seem that there are too many people with ideologically based outcomes preset in their minds, and too many others who hop on the currently trendy bandwagon, as it were.

If we are able to produce large amounts of safe energy regardless of the source, then we can rely on our ingenuity and creativity to see us the rest of the way into continued prosperity.

Karen Street's picture
Karen Street on Aug 9, 2010

I said some of this on Meredith’s post. So often I agree with what you say, but this post conflates misconceptions and valid points.

Mereditih points out an unmistakable correlation between wealth and energy, but there is not a direct correlation. One graph shows among countries with GDP per capita over $30k, kWh per capita is >2.5x greater for some than others. Some is perhaps explained by a displacement of energy use to imports, but much of it comes from different behaviors.

The need of the poor for energy is the first point made by the InterAcademy Council report, Lighting the Way: Toward a Sustainable Energy Future.

This is the point I begin with in my policy presentations.

However, there is another thread about energy use important to acknowledge: a lot of behavior in the wealthier countries is conspicuous consumption—larger cars and appliances than needed, leaving stuff on when it isn’t being used, driving when we can walk. This is true for both rich and poor first worlders. Neither I nor scientific and policy experts advocate for reduced energy use from an anti-nuclear power perspective. There is no way that all this energy can be supplied by nuclear power.

When Californians reduced electricity consumption 10% almost a decade ago, people surveyed said, I didn’t really do anything, just sometimes turn out the lights and turn the computer off at night. I suspect that for most of us, a 10% reduction can be accomplished without really doing much.

People in the rich world engage in behaviors that are not particularly healthy, such as spending large amounts of time in a car or airplane. Even as medicine continues to improve, there is concern that younger people will not live as long, due in large part to sedentary lifestyles.

The poor deserve access to clean energy. It also makes sense to use objects that require less energy, perhaps even using smaller cars, TVs, and refrigerators. And for those of us who routinely throw away huge amounts of food or leave stuff on instead of off or drive when we could walk (or at least carpool or take public transit), we could ask ourselves if there is really enough for so much waste.

We do agree that the energy we use should be clean, and that nuclear power is an important and attractive part of the solution.

I notice that often people find part of the solution and decide that is all that is needed. Unfortunately, expert analysis worries that many areas may become dustbowls this century, including the Mediterranean, including where I live in southwestern US/northern Mexico. Expert analysis sees finding enough solutions, fast enough, as difficult, close to impossible. This is not because science and policy experts are prejudiced against cheap, available energy including nuclear power.

There are advocates for nuclear power and advocates for reducing our energy use who say much that does not speak to my condition. This doesn’t make them wrong. I get my understanding from the peer-review community in order to understand the issues, not from those trying to sway public opinion.

Good luck in explaining the advantages of nuclear power to members of the public. Good luck in advocating for the right of the poor to energy. But you lose me when you aren’t clear that many in the US and elsewhere could cut consumption markedly without losing much, and many would benefit.

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