Feel the power

Jesse Ausubel takes the next ‘Seminars About Long-Term Thinking’, on 13th January 2015. I’ll link to it here, when it’s available. For now, the Long Now is trailing Ausubel’s optimistic “Nature is Rebounding” talk with an informative primer

“As industry evolves, Ausubel argues, it constantly finds ways to use fewer material resources for every unit of production, thus decreasing its consumption of the world’s natural resources, including land. … Human culture is poised to realize technology’s potential to liberate the environment, Ausubel suggests: we need simply to pursue our drive toward efficiency and greater convenience. This drive might just allow us to have our cake and eat it, too — a prosperous and growing human society amid a thriving natural environment.”

I’d note that progress is also broadly pushing down the amount of domestic resource consumption, when measured in terms of electricity use. For instance, according to the recent British government paper “Energy Consumption in the UK (2014): Domestic energy consumption in the UK between 1970 and 2013”

“Since 2000 [overall annual] domestic energy use has decreased by 7 per cent, whilst there has been an increase of 11 per cent in the number of UK households and a 9 per cent increase in the UK population. At a per household level, energy consumption has fallen by 9 per cent since 2000. […] Electricity consumption from lighting and cold appliances [fridges] fell 24 per cent and 19 per cent respectively between 2000 and 2013.”

So this is good news, at least until you open your electricity bill. Our usage is going down, but the price goes ever upward. This is mostly due to new ‘green’ taxes and subsidies for pointless wind-farms…

“The most recent increases in electricity bills across Europe are primarily due to higher taxes and levies, including support for renewable energy” (The Guardian, 14th April 2014)

But the UK’s long-term picture on domestic energy use is very good. Look at the orange line in this chart from “Energy Consumption in the UK (2014)”, which shows that energy use per person has hardly changed compared to 1970

domestic

This has remained broadly steady despite our uptake of electric heating, domestic gadgets and appliances, and colour TVs. Yet even our huge new TV’s are now using less power and are likely to use even less by 2020…

falling

You may notice that home computing is conveniently missing from the above UK government graph. PCs are indeed energy hogs…

“Computers, printers, monitors and laptops make up around 13% of the electricity used in your home, according to the Energy Saving Trust.” (Which magazine)

But even PCs are now seeing small overall reductions, most likely due to the flush of new spending as the UK emerged from recession…

“Consumption by home computing appliances fell for the first time between 2012 and 2013 by 2 per cent” (Energy Consumption in the UK 2014)”

This was probably caused by: i) owners finally replacing their PC base units and monitors; ii) buying newer and more efficient gaming consoles; iii) casual users switching to either a laptop or a tablet PC, and leaving their old full desktop PC and monitor to gather dust. But there are still huge strides to be taken in making desktop gaming PCs more efficient.

Of course, this doesn’t measure all the other consumption and resource importation that happens annually in the domestic space. I’d be interested to see a robust calculation of that. I’d be willing to bet that the average household has become more efficient compared to a 1970 baseline. Especially those with low energy appliances, solar panels, and good insulation. At the grid level, electricity transmission costs are said to be orders of magnitude smaller than they were in the 1970s, and the electricity can also be transmitted further without loss. This is due to a complicated new technology, but it’s robust and works well. So well that the UK is now planning a new £4b power link across the sea to Ireland. Previously spaghetti-like power grids can now be made sense of instantly by new algorithms, which suck up data and make accurate predictions about demand and how to route it.

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