7 Energy Efficiency Myths Debunked
The emotional appeal ofenergy independence is undeniable—it suggests freedom from foreign oil
and, therefore, from foreign entanglements. But over the past few
years, veteran energy writer Robert Bryce argues, the political players
who are promoting the concept of energy independence have created a set
of false promises to bolster their campaigns and give such independence
the appearance of credibility. In exclusive excerpts from his new book,
Gusher of Lies, Bryce examines the facts behind those promises.
Published on: March 26, 2008
1. Energy independence will mean better energy security for the U.S.
the Gulf of Mexico, several damaged refineries in the region were
unable to operate. Within a few days of the storm, gasoline shortages
hit several southern U.S. cities. The shortages were, thankfully,
short-lived. The reason: imported gasoline.
By mid-October 2005, just six weeks after Hurricane Katrina, gasoline
imports had soared from 1 million barrels (or less) per day to 1.5
million barrels per day, the highest level recorded up to that time by
the Energy Information Administration (EIA) since it began tracking
these imports in 1982. Without gasoline from refineries in Venezuela,
the Netherlands and elsewhere, the post-Katrina shortages would surely
Global commodities markets, like the one for oil, are famous for
volatility and sensitivity to world events—even domestic events such as
Katrina. To mitigate these effects and to ensure long-term economic
security, the United States has no choice but to buy the gasoline it
needs on the global market.
2. Greater efficiency results in lower energy consumption and, therefore, will hasten the day of energy independence.
History shows that as the U.S. economy has grown more energy efficient,
energy consumption has continued to climb. In 1980, the U.S. was using
about 15,000 Btu per dollar of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). By 2004,
the energy intensity of the U.S. economy had improved dramatically, so
that just over 9000 Btu were required for each dollar of GDP. By 2030,
the EIA projects that energy intensity will fall to about 5800 Btu per
dollar of GDP. But even with that dramatic increase in efficiency, the
EIA predicts that overall energy consumption in the U.S. will increase
by more than 30 percent, rising from 100.1 quadrillion Btu in 2005 to
131.1 quadrillion Btu in 2030. (A quadrillion Btu is equal to about 172
million barrels of crude oil.)
3. Federal mandates for higher-mileage cars will result in less fuel consumption, thereby reducing the need for imported oil.
increases in America’s automobile fuel efficiency will likely only slow
the rate of growth of imported oil. Even if Congress mandated that the
domestic auto fleet boost its average fuel economy to 44 mpg—a major
increase over the 27.5 mpg standard in effect in 2007—America’s motor
fuel consumption will still grow by 3.7 million barrels per day by
Why? America’s motor fleet is so huge that replacing it with a more
efficient fleet will take decades. In 2005 (the last year for which
statistics are available), the U.S. had 247.4 million registered motor
vehicles—more than double the number in 1970. And Americans are keeping
their vehicles longer, which means that older, less efficient cars will
stay on the road for substantially longer periods. The reason is
simple: Today’s cars are of much higher quality than they were two
4. Alternative fuel in the form of corn ethanol will swap in for gasoline, helping the U.S. achieve energy independence.
In 2006, the U.S. produced about 5 billion gallons of corn ethanol,
which sounds like a lot of fuel until you realize that Americans use
about 140 billion gallons of gasoline per year. That means the corn
ethanol represents just 3.5 percent of America’s current gasoline
In early 2007, President Bush pledged that the U.S. would be using 35
billion gallons of renewable and alternative fuels by 2017. In June
2007, the Senate passed a bill mandating the production of 36 billion
gallons of ethanol per year by 2022.
Regardless of whether the target is 35 billion or 36 billion
gallons, it’s an awfully ambitious goal—a sevenfold increase in
renewable and alternative fuel production in just 15 years. Even if
America is able to meet the president’s or the Senate’s goals,
renewable and alt fuels will still account for only about 11 percent of
America’s projected total oil consumption.
5. Advances in biotechnology will make cellulosic ethanol viable, replacing foreign hydrocarbons with domestic carbohydrates.
ethanol is fuel distilled from switchgrass, wood, straw and other
plant-based feedstocks. Turning a diffuse source of energy like the
sugars bound up in switchgrass into a more concentrated form of energy
like ethanol is always an uphill battle. The lightest grade of crude
can almost be pumped straight from the oil well into an automobile
By contrast, switchgrass must be mixed with large quantities of
water, fermented and then distilled before it can be utilized. And each
of those steps takes energy. Some scientists have calculated that the
energy returned on energy invested for cellulosic ethanol created from
switchgrass results in a 50 percent net energy loss. That is, an
investment of 1 Btu produces .50 Btu in return. Corn ethanol results in
a net energy loss of 29 percent; that is, for 1 Btu invested, an
investor gets 0.71 in return. The energy accounting for gasoline
production shows that it yields energy profits of about 600 to 700
percent. Put another way, for 1 Btu invested in crude oil and gasoline
production, an investor gets 6 or 7 Btu back. That high rate of return
helps explain why oil-based fuels have been used so profitably, for so
long. They have very high energy content, are fairly light and are
easily managed and transported.
6. A vast electricity transmission grid
between the Dakotas and Texas could take wind-generated electricity
from where it is best produced to cities where it is needed most,
thereby enhancing prospects for energy independence.
By 2010, the U.S. will generate about 50 billion kilowatt-hours per
year from wind power. That figure needs to be put in perspective. In
2006, consumer electronics alone—TVs, computers, home theater systems,
answering machines and so on—consumed 147 billion kilowatt-hours of
7. If the U.S. tapped its vast coal
reserves effectively with clean and efficient coal-to-liquids (CTL)
technology, America would achieve energy independence.
First, CTL plants are enormously expensive. A plant capable of
producing just 50,000 barrels of CTL fuel per day will likely cost $4.5
billion. For comparison, an oil refinery capable of processing 200,000
barrels per day costs about $5 billion.
Second, CTL plants, which generally use German technology developed in
the 1920s, create huge amounts of air pollution and carbon dioxide
emissions. In 2005 Toyota issued a report on the “well-to-wheel” carbon
dioxide emissions for 23 kinds of motor fuels. Fuel made from coal had
the highest carbon dioxide footprint, releasing about 50 percent more
carbon dioxide than gasoline. In its Annual Energy Outlook for 2007,
the EIA predicted that CTL production in the U.S. would be just 440,000
barrels per day by 2030—less than 2 percent of America’s total oil
The points are generally valid but don’t really get us anywhere. What would he have us do? Not try to improve efficiency? As to the first point…He doesn’t convince me that energy independence would be bad, at all. Let’s say we reach a point of energy independence – we have all the energy we need from solar, nuclear, coal, wind, water. Then some crazy natural disaster happens that cuts back on our ability to produce energy. He suggests that other countries aren’t going to be wililng to sell us energy, because we’re energy independent. Is that really true? I have no reason to believe it. There are many reasons why energy independence is attractive: it would keep more money within our economy, we’d be paying Americans to provide energy to Americans, we wouldn’t be subject to the price and production setting of OPEC, we won’t have to give money to states that support terrorism, etc… Sure, perhaps there will be a problem every few years and we’ll need more energy – I doubt that any country with a surpluss would hesitate to sell us energy, assuming they have a surplus (and if they don’t have a surplus then who would we be buying from were we not independent?). Most people here already know that ethanol is stupid, that coal isn’t a viable alternative, etc… However, he doesn’t address cellular (from PVs to suncatcher farms) or algae or biofuels produced from bacteria. Obviously we just can’t sit around and wait for technology, but there are so many options and points not addressed that it doesn’t really prove its point. Plus, I still don’t by the premise, that energy independence is somehow bad because then we won’t be able to buy fuels…
The author of this article doesn’t say as such, but what is obvious from reading this is that ANY energy efficiency gains MUST be converted into reduction of consumption…..
Of course, consumption reduction is an anti thesis to ALL current growth paradigms, and is NOT encouraged…. We are as energy efficient as is humanly possible without going anal and living in a cave. So, as a result, I have stopped working (for wages..) COMPLETELY. My wife works two or three days a week as it suits her (or her employer who is facing staff shortages). She now has time to study pottery…
I no longer own a car. HER car is a 20 year old 35 MPG device which is luckily remarkably reliable. But come the day it dies, it’s highly unlikely we would replace it. It IS our last car….
We also grow much of our food. It’s rarely noted as an energy efficiency strategy, but growing your own food (in a sustainable fashion) is one of the very best energy reduction strategy there is. And once you stop working, well you have pleny of time to garden!
If you want to become energy independent, stop consuming…! Consumption is where all your energy is going. Park your car where it’s not in the way, and throw away the key. Quit your job. Stop making all payments on your debts. Rip up your lawn and grow ANYTHING…. it doesn’t matter where you start, but study Permaculture.
Abandon the Matrix. Wake up. Take the Red Pill…..
I would like to see what this number is in inflation adjusted dollars. My guess its not nearly as rosy as he makes it out to be.
#4 & 5
Corn ethanol was always a boondoggle and its true that the energy in/energy out ratio is much better for oil than other potential sources so far. That’s why it has become the fuel of choice in the developed world. That doesn’t mean we should stop trying to refine (so to speak) refining methods to produce more efficient sources. In light of peak oil, we will need to develop all possible sources of alternative energy, and most importantly, improve conservation methods, just to replace the oil we will be losing.
I agree, plus he didn’t mention the enormous cost of building a new grid. To me, that argues for a more decentralized grid that relies on whatever is most accessible and practical in localities; including homes, communities and industries producing there energy needs onsite.
So-called clean coal should also include the environmental costs of burying valleys and streams with mountain tops lopped off to facilitate strip mining.
2. Greater efficiency results in lower energy consumption and, therefore, will hasten the day of energy independence.
Enhanced efficiency is attainable and should be an integral part of any solution. While we have made some strides in this regard, we haven’t even scratched the surface of the potential. The technology is already available to greatly reduce our energy usage.
For example, geothermal heat pumps (30 year proven technology) may increase operational efficiency for heating, cooling and generating hot domestic water for our homes and buildings to 250-400%. This is an improvement in magnitudes of reduced energy consumption. Once the heat sync of a geothermal heat pump is employed in a home or building, this provides a ready symbiotic relationship for a fuel cell to deliver the necessary efficiency to be justified.
The problem with fuel cells is that they reject too much heat in generating electricity (parasitic load that detracts from efficiency). A geothermal heat pump may "capture" this rejected heat and use it in space heating and generating hot domestic water.
In the United States alone, buildings account for:
• 72% of electricity consumption,
• 39% of energy use,
• 38% of all carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions
The big points missing when people talk about eliminating our dependence on imported oil is that the alternatives can’t fill in the gap. There are several reasons.
1. Biomass requires land and water inputs that the lower 48 just can’t supply. There just isn’t enough arable land. Never mind that all land would be diverted from food production toward fuel if we were to attempt it. The vast tracts of land west of the 100th meridian are too dry and irrigating them is impossible.
2. Time is not on our side, no it ain’t. Besides not having the land and water, scaling up biomass would take decades and oil is in decline now. It takes years to commission a nuclear plant. We need dozens of them to be under construction now and dozens more in the pipe. Not happening. As mentioned above, there currently exists an enormous investment in the current means of transport. It will take decades to cycle through it and at the end, the gains will not be worth it.
3. Efficiency sounds good in campaign speeches and looks good on paper. However, retooling requires energy, materials, and time, not to mention financing. All of which are becoming shorter in supply. Efficiency will get you only part the way there. The first 10% is easy. Further increases in efficiency get more difficult and the paybacks are smaller. Then there’s the problem of Jevon’s paradox. As efficiency increases, prices fall and that encourages more consumption than when you first started. At some point efficiency without rationing is counter-productive.
4. The psychology of previous investment is perhaps the most intractable problem. Who is willing to voluntarily give up their Mercedes and McMansion? Who can renounce that sense of entitlement the propaganda system has been hammering into peoples heads for decades? It’s not just a question of designing a better gadget and selling it to well meaning people. For one, the facination with gadgets is part of the problem and two, there aren’t that many well meaning people. This isn’t the America of the 1930’s where people still had some understanding of solidarity. We are in the main a bunch of selfish consumers in a state of arrested adolescence. We think we’re entitled to anything we can dream up if whomever sells it takes VISA.
5. Reducing our material and energetic demands runs counter to the mantra of eternal growth. Our monetary system cannot function without the constant return that, in theory, overcomes the discount rate of our currency. It’s taken for granted that even a savings account must earn compound interest. If it weren’t for the continuing debasement of the currency, saving a dollar today would yield the same purchasing power at anytime in the future. As it is, all savings are subject to risk by virtue of trusting some institution with our hoard. Who among us would save our earnings at a zero per cent rate of return? That is a measure of our obesance to the God of Growth.
It’s been said by Michael Ruppert and Katharine Austin Fitz that, "until you change the way money works, you change nothing." If we as a society are serious about overcoming the hardships on the downside of Hubbert’s Peak, we must come to grips with how our concept of how the universe works is not in line with how the universe works. Our systems of assigning value to labor for the purposes of trade are not consistent with a finite Earth. Our expectations for material comfort are outlandishly lavish compared to the true carring capacity of a low hydrocarbon economy. It will not be possible over the next several decades to live as we do now. People born today will never know our level of affluence. As the years pass those of us who lived in such wastefulness will come to be resented one for having used up a planet and two for having made no substantive effort to change our habbits. And possibly a third for not showing the proper repentance for it all.
Arguing about which technology will pull our fat out of the fire misses the point. More technology will not save us. All tools wear out. At some point in the not too distant future, no more replacements or upgrades will be in the offing. The "power-down" process described by Richard Heinberg, even if it started today, is 35 years too late. No one in a position of power and influence is even considering it. Such policies are seen as something either decades away or too disruptive to consider at all. It’s too late. Assume crash positions.
You may be right in that we cannot stem the tide of a coming energy shortage. Our leaders lack the fortitude, will and money to move an entire society. But that doesn’t mean we can’t take the individual steps to reduce our energy usage while becoming independent and self sufficient. Yes, the technology to do this has been available and affordable in that the savings can quickly help pay for the equipment.
The system I described in my earlier post; a CHP (Cooling, heating and electrical power) was only one example – but a powerful one. It would enable a home or building owner to generate their own electricity while providing their own space heating/cooling and hot domestic water.
The energy savings of an integrated geothermal heat pump and a fuel cell can easily reach 400%-600% with all rejected heat captured for a further savings. Excessive electricity can be metered and sold back to the grid for added savings. And, if the grid goes down, you can continue operating. And, what little energy is required can be provided in a number of forms.
We have another huge problem coming our way. Much of the US power grid has been operating beyond design capacity and we are already seeing black-outs and brown-outs on a regular basis. If you were to put an oscilloscope on your electrical power you would find that our power voltage is often low and the power is "dirty" from back-feed and other grid problems. Upgrading our power grid will be a huge financial undertaking – dwarfing the cost to upgrade our interstate highway system. The system could continue operating if we could reduce much of the load – and we can – by generating clean power and comfort on site. The quality of electricity is also enhanced which can extend the service life of computers and other electrical appliances.
We can make a difference – this is just one example. As the cost of energy rises, these alternatives will look more and more attractive. And, the independence may be a life saver.
Our last quarterly power bill was $5.65…..
Damnthematrix, you are my hero… I hope to sell and unplug too, ASAP!