Slight Optimism about Conservation

One of the more interesting blogs I’ve stumbled across is by the physicist Tom Murphy at Do the Math. He brings serious analytical horsepower to issues of conservation, climate change, economic growth, and human destiny. He has made some impressive demonstrations of bringing down his own energy use, in ways that might surprise you.

See, when people talk about how the future is going to be more efficient, they are often rather gloomy about it. Environmentalists can be especially bad about this, bringing in a note of moral disapproval: “We can’t keep up our current standard of living.” But the phrase “standard of living” seems to imply that everyone is going to have to be more uncomfortable, eat crappier food, etc,, like we’re getting a collective pay cut. That is probably partly true. But what Murphy shows is that it is possible to dramatically cut your energy usage without all that much inconvenience:

When I first took stock of my energy usage in 2007, my wife and I totaled 3466 kWh in a year in a condo without air conditioning. The equivalent apartment/condo total for San Diego is 5312 kWh. Already, we used 35% less electricity than typical area residents. (We were right on the nominal amount of gas usage, at about 300 Therms per year.) Lately, we use something like 750 kWh of utility electricity in a year: almost a factor of five reduction for us, and about a factor of ten less than the equivalent San Diego household (our house does have air conditioning installed).

And a great deal of that energy use was getting rid of things that were completely pointless wastes, not helping anyone:

What do these “trick” devices have to do with reduction of power consumption? Knowledge is power. And knowledge of power is spectacularly useful. We got rid of wasteful devices like a stereo that had an inexcusable 12 W standby power drain (9 kWh/month). Knowing the power associated with various lighting choices guides our decisions about what lights we might want to use and when. We have identified various phantom loads (devices that suck “standby” power without providing benefit) and eliminated them by unplugging when not in use. These include a 9 W pull from the printer even when off; 11 W from the central air circulator that we were not even using; 5 W from the sprinkler control that we also were not using; and others as well—you get the idea. Some countries have on/off switches at the wall outlet to make such savings simpler to effect.

Or things like turning off your pilot light:

More distressing was the comparison to our annual gas demand, which averaged 28 Therms/month, dropping to 15 Therms/month during the summer months. Thus, our two pilot lights accounted for 40% of our total gas usage, and over 70% of our summertime gas usage! Outrageous!

Or how heat pumps are like magic. This one is extremely math-heavy and hard to excerpt, but suffice to say that using a heat pump you can get ~4 units of heat energy for every 1 unit of actual energy used, meaning heat pumps are dramatically more efficient than the standard fuel-burning heaters.

The upshot of all this is that it would be easily possible to retrofit existing houses and build new ones in such a way that they used dramatically less energy, while maintaining a reasonable standard of comfort, and most importantly it would be cheap. Probably the average person wouldn’t see quite the gains that Murphy does, since he lives in San Diego, but it would still be considerable. We have little to fear from climate adaptation, especially compared to the clear and present danger of climate change.

(The rest of the blog is worth checking out. Some samples: he calculates that economic growth must inevitably cease, shows the reality of a sustainable future, calculates the miles per gallon of human beings, and lays out his great hope for the future.)

Follow Ryan on Twitter and his personal site.

Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is currently the Washington correspondent for The Week.