Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Counterknowledge, Google, and Amory Lovins

Damian Thompson coined the term Counterknowledge, but did not invent the concept. "Counterknowledge," according to Damian Thompson is that which "purports to be knowledge, but is not knowledge". Counterknowledge refers to knowledge claims that can be easily contradicted. An examples of countraknowledge include the notion that the United States Government, with or without Israeli help, was responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

An example of Thompson's style will be sufficient:
It will come as no surprise to long-time readers of this blog that the culprit is our old friend(s) Harun Yahya, whose lavish (but bollocks) “Atlas of Creation” - aptly branded a “glossy tome of lies” by one recent Amazon.co.uk reviewer - was sent out to schools all over the world in 2007.

Thompson has his set of pet peeves, and he knows what to do with them all. Unfortunately Thompson is British, and the work of Amory Lovins has yet to enter his awareness. This is most unfortunate because Amory Lovins is not an ordinary run of the mill crackpot. e is a crackpot who has managed to capture the ear of some very rich and powerful people, and whose ideas win far to ready acceptance in the current energy debate.

In a famous speech which Lovins delivered in 1989, Lovins argued:
I think we have even better methods now, which don't just market negawatts, but create a market in negawatts. . . .

I think the only real choice that electric utilities face is between participation in the efficiency revolution, or obsolescence. A minority of U.S. utilities now understand this. They're trying to sell less electricity and more efficiency. . . .

There are three main things we need to do to abate global warming. One of them -- and this will handle over half the problem -- is energy efficiency. But it costs less to save fuel than to burn it, so the cost of this abatement measure is strongly negative.
Lovins does sound very reasonable, doesn't he?  And in the case of a household economy he is.  During the Mid 1990's I noticed that the incandescent bulbs in my Dallas home, put out far more heat than light. In the summer, we were using electrical power to run the air conditioner in order to remove the heat caused by incandescent lighting. I began experimenting with compact fluorescent bulbs, and eventually switched the entire house to fluorescent lighting. These measures did save on our electrical bill, thus my experience would seem to confirm Lovins' account at least on a household level.
We did other things to save electricity, installing a more efficient air conditioner compressor, and purchasing over time more energy efficient appliances.

This would have been the end of the story except other things started happening. My wife and I began to notice how dark the house was, This was not the fault of the Fluorescent lighting. We had the same light output. But the house had been poorly lit all along. All of the money we were saving on electricity, now went into home improvement, and of course one of the things we improved was our lighting. Lighting improvement meant that were were using more electricity although not as much as we did before. But we began to use electricity in other ways. We each had computers, and computers are power hungry. Finally my wife switched from using the solar clothes dryer - called a clothes line - to our electrical dryer. We had always had the electrical dryer, but the electrical savings from the lighting and air conditioner meant that my wife felt she could afford to use the electrical clothes dryer. As a consequence we had a rebound in our electrical bill. This is what happens on a micro economic level.

William Stanley Jevons, a 195y century English Economist, made the first serious study of the effects of energy efficiency on energy consumption. Jevons had historical records of English coal consumption going back to the dawn of the Industrial revolution. Jevons was also well informed on the history of British technological efficiency. Jevons noted a startling fact when he compared the two histories. As coal use efficiency improved, demand for coal increased on a macro-economic level.

Now Jevons findings directly contradicted Lovins contentions. Jevons stated, "It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuels is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth." Jevons and Lovins cannot both be right, and Jevon's conclusions are backed up by research, while Lovins is not. Furthermore, Jevons conclusions have been supported by other researchers.

Robert Bryce reports the following:

John M. Polimeni, Kozo Mayumi, Mario Giampetro, and Blake Alcott, state "increased energy efficiency leads to increased demand and consumption of energy."

Horace Herring states, "by lowering the implicit price, result in increased, not decreased, energy use."

Vaclav Smil states that history is "replete with examples demonstrating that substantial gains in conversion (or material use) efficiencies stimulated increases of fuel and electricity (or additional material) use that were far higher than the savings brought by these innovations."

Peter Huber and Mark Mills state, "Efficiency fails to curb demand because it lets more people do more, and do it faster and more/more/faster invariably swamps all the efficiency gains."

John M. Polimeni, who reviewed numerous studies on energy efficiency, reported that a 20 percent increase in efficiency would "increase carbon dioxide emissions by 5 percent."

Lovins simply committed intellectual murder against Jevons by ignoring Jevons' findings, as well as the finding of numerous other scholars. As far as Lovins was concerned, Jovons book on energy efficiency, "The Coal Question," and every other piece of economic research that contradicts Lovins beliefs, has to be made yp disappear. They simply do not exist in Lovins universe. How could this happen, how could a genius like Lovins not know about Jevons? Could it be that Lovins, the great prophet of energy efficiency, did not know about Jevons, the greatest researcher on energy efficiency. Could it be that Lovins, confident in his own genius, spoke out of ignorance, and said the sorts of stupid things an ignorant person is likely to say when he shoots off his mouth about energy efficiency?

It is most unfortunate that Lovins has forced William Stanley Jevons to sleep with the fish. Jevons should be into the energy debate, if not given the last word. Jevon's view was that energy efficiency was not the solution, and indeed that resources will be consumed until consumption will bring them to an end. This is a view often encountered on The Oil Drum. And while this view is certainly true of some resources, including coal and other fossil fuels, it is not true of the resources civilization truly needs in order to survive. It is well beyond human capacity to consume all of the Uranium and Thorium that could be extracted for energy purposes. Alvin Weinberg envisioned 50 years ago that civilization could survive by burning the rocks, and that vision still holds the same promise today as it did 50 years ago.

In a comment on H.G. Wells' 1914 book, "The World Set Free: A Story of Mankind". Weinberg stated:

The world would become a much more stable place if energy, ubiquitous and cheap, could replace other raw materials: if, say, natural hydrocarbons were replaced by hydrocarbons derived from limestone, water and energy; or if unfertile deserts were rendered fertile by huge desalting complexes driven with the new energy source. Nuclear energy was, to use the current phrase, the ultimate "technological fix": by its exploitation, man could satisfy all of his material wants. And if man's material wants were satisfied, then it seemed to Wells that the world would become a more stable place, especially if the big bomb were there to enforce the peace.

To present-day "realists" all this is merely the dream of a mystic. Yet it is my contention that in the long run H. G. Wells-not the cynical realists- will be proved the better prophet. Despite skepticism with which one now views nuclear energy as an instrument of international understanding, or as a promoter of world stability, the final returns are far from in. The promise is there, and it will eventually be turned into reality.

Weinberg's belief in the technological fix ought to be part of the energy discussion, but it is completely ignored by the Google energy plan.

What can we say of the Google Energy Plan? The Google plan assumes that by 2030 American energy use can be reduced by 33% through energy efficiency, The only authority which Google has to back this assumption is Amory Lovins. At the very least the authors of the Google plan should have looked at Jevons and the numerous other economists who have demonstrated that Lovins assumptions about efficiency are false. Lovins theory of energy efficiency is in fact counterknowledge, which the Google.org people would have discovered, had they Googled the topic. What is wrong with Google then? Don't they know how to google?


donb said...

I certainly believe that energy conservation is the correct thing to do when it makes economic sense.

Arguably, it may be true that the average homeowner does not understand the economics of energy conservation. This results in those homeowners using more energy than necessary.

But residential energy consumption is but a fraction of total energy consumption. The cost of commercial and industrial energy consumption is a line item in the balance sheet for those companies. Since they are driven by the profit motive, they have high incentive to make the hand-nosed decisions about equipment replacement and energy efficiency. Thus if Lovins' ideas really make sense, they should be found widely implemented by the commercial and industrial sector. This would mean that the large reductions in energy consumption (the "negawatts") are already in place. Some homeowners are also well aware of return on investment, so they are already participating as well.

This means that mostly only the unaware homeowners are ripe for investments towards big energy savings. Problem is, we are now down to a small fraction of the total energy consumption in the country. So only small incremental gains are available for energy efficiency.

Large reductions in energy consumption can be accomplished only by downgrading the lifestyle of the majority, a very unpopular idea.

Charles Barton said...

During the years of my marriage my wife and I steadily made our home more energy efficient. Not only did we install energy efficient light bulbs, we installed energy efficient air conditioner compressors, and more energy efficient appliances. We also installed celling fans. We had our house painted white in order to radiate more summer heat. Thus we steadily sought top make our home more energy efficient. There is, however, a limit to what homeowners can do,

Soylent said...

Jevon's paradox only applies when demand is elastic.

In the short term that's rarely true and energy consumption declines; I have all the space I need in my freezer, if efficiency goes up I'm not going to want more space in there. But in the longer term we always find some way to waste the newly found surplus, like cooling the entire house to a comfortable temperature.

Charles Barton said...

That isthe long run process, efficiency leads to more use.

Jason Ribeiro said...

If we interpret the Jevon's effect as strictly efficiency = more use, then what would be the purpose of becoming more efficient? I'd rather like to think the Jevon's effect creates opportunity for resources, usually money and/or energy. As you point out, more efficient lighting eventually led to more lights being added, or rather it led to an opening to consider to add more lights. Efficiency should be promoted and encouraged but reasonable expectations as to what it will accomplish need to be recognized as well. In the case of Google, the expectation is not reasonable.

Charles Barton said...

Jason, I agree with your point. During the last 30 years, considerable energy efficiencies have been implemented throughout advanced economies. The net effect of these efficiencies has not been to lower energy use. We have to ask ourselves the question, "why should the future be different than the past?" Amory Lovins and his cult followers have preached the message of energy efficiency for the last 30 years. Their message has been heard and acted on, but not with the expected outcomes. Why? The answer is simple, the cult ideology does not include a predictive model of human behavior in response to cost savings from energy efficiencies. Lovins and his followers simply pretend that the added energy efficiencies of the last 30 years did not happen. They did. Either we learn from experience or, if we pretend that experiences do not happen, we don't. The entire Lovins ideology, that lies at the heart of the Google energy plan, is based on a the pretense that reality does not exist.

Charles Barton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ray Lightning said...

There is nothing wrong with using energy efficiently. It is a great thing to conserve energy, and it will help us put that energy to use in other interesting avenues.

The problem with Lovins is that he doesn't stop there. He says that his strategy is "sufficient" to lead us into a zero-carbon economy. This amounts to lying through his teeth. In fact, he is spreading disinformation on behalf of his natural gas masters who pay his "consultancy" fees. He is the real mole in the environmentalist community. He should be smoked out ASAP. For somebody who cares about energy efficiency, he champions Hydrogen (the ultimate wasteful energy carrier) for locomotion.

What is the catch ?

All that he speaks for will benifit natural gas companies. It is them natural gas companies who sell Hydrogen in the current market. It is them that will benifit out of this move. It is again them natural gas companies who power local "cogeneration" - Lovins' favorite electricity source.


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