Gambling on energy efficiency

09Apr12

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My youngest son has just discovered the old fairground game the coin pusher (or Penny Cakewalk as it was called in my childhood). This is the machine where you drop coins onto a moving ledge and, if lucky, dislodge a larger pile of coins with a satisfying clatter.

The tantalising pile of potential winnings reminds me of the promise of energy efficiency gains – opportunities hidden in plain sight for reducing waste, cutting carbon emissions and saving money at the same time.

In practice it turns out that many of these win-win-win opportunities are harder to get at than the raw cost-benefit figures show; barriers like landlord-tennant problems get in the way. Wasting energy is easy. Saving it is hard. Its not that the piled up coins are not real, but the temptation to think they will be easy to dislodge is false. The fact that there are so many balanced on the ledge is a sign of just how hard they are to shift.

And then there is the Jevons paradox – the proposition that we can’t help feeding the winnings we make from energy efficiency back into the addictive machine that is the economy.

There has been a lot debate and discussion over the past couple of years about the importance of the Jevons paradox and its cousin the rebound effect – here, here, here and here, to name but a few. As David Roberts at Grist summarises: rebound effects are real and in some cases substantial. They are not a bad thing, they translate efficiency gains into economic growth. But taking rebound effects seriously means recognising that the sustainability gap is even wider than we might have thought.

Optimism that  energy effiency and current clean technologies will deliver the energy needed to power global growth in the face of environmental limits is about as realistic as my son’s wishful thinking that his winnings and the bank-of-mum will bankroll him to play at the arcade all day.

We need major innovations in technology and systems – cheaper renewable energy (and energy storage) as well as smarter systems to transform the way we use energy and resources: smarter grids, cities, farms and food systems, healthcare, logistics and transport.

But human ingenuity tends to concentrate in other areas, finding ways to amuse ourselves, find meaning, and demonstrate our status, individuality and belonging. And these drives and possibilities are seemingly limitless, from digging two and a half miles down for gold to printing jokes on crisps, and from the historic spice trade to the promise of space tourism.

If our economies and industries become more efficient at meeting survival needs for more people the rebound effect will increasingly bounce up the Maslow hierarchy. Part of the low-carbon economic transformation must therfore come through innovations that don’t save money and time but instead mop it up. Not just game changing innovations, but innovative games: they need to create the impression and cachet of scarcity without depending on scarce resources or overly concentrating power and priviledge.

Personalised number plates fit the bill for this kind of high-value/low-stuff product (although unfortunately they are usually attached to an energy guzzling vehicle). An age old contender, with the ability to continually reinvent itself is spirituality and religious devotion (although it too can come with some noxious baggage).

Social networking has the potential to be a game changer. It can directly support energy-saving behaviour and enable collaborative consumption (ebay, zipcars, airbnb and so on). But perhaps more importantly by comodifying status itself we may be able to delink the relationship between producing and consuming physical stuff and sending signals to secure the relationships, recognition and meaning we really crave.

The app economy is starting to pursuade us to spend real money on pretend coins to drop into virtual arcades. Creating jobs for gold farmers instead of gold miners may turn out to be a step towards finding some of the biggest energy efficiency gains of all.

Or is that my wishful thinking?



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