Energy conservation

Energy conservation is a simple enough concept – the practice of decreasing the quantity of energy used.

But it's the simple things that are often the most challenging.

Conserving energy definitely is a challenge for we love our energy. It saves us so much effort (ever tried carrying the groceries all the way home from the store). It keeps us comfortable and drives most of our entertainment.

If you are in your late forties, then this anecdote could describe you:

My 15th birthday was in 1976. I can’t recall that there was much memorable about it other than I still had hair and had just saved up enough money to buy my first vinyl album.

In 1976 the households of Australia consumed 2,371 petajoules of energy.

Next year my youngest son turns 15. He is already onto his third iPod and way past his maiden download from iTunes. He will use a tiny amount of the roughly 6,000 petajoules of domestic energy use – comfortably double the 1976 amount.

When my son gets to my age, another 30 years will have passed. Projections have energy consumption by Australian households in 2050 at 17,000 petajoules, another doubling and seven times the 1976 level.

Hot water, washing machine, tumble drier, fridge, dishwasher, plasma TV, lights, sound system, vacuum cleaner, power tools… the list is long.

Nothing in the sums or the demand curves suggest that this doubling rate will slow, partly because there will be many more households.

For example, enough new households in Australia for the extra 12 million people that will be around by 2050.

So if we want to stay at 2008 levels of energy use, each household in 2050 will need to use 30% less energy than we do now just to accommodate the increase in households.

Why would we seek energy conservation?

#1 Because of cost.

Energy use costs us money, directly in the home thanks to our friendly utility company and indirectly in the embodied energy factored into the cost of the goods and groceries that we purchase. Reduce consumption and we reduce these direct and indirect costs and lower outgoings should raise our sense of economic security.

#2 Because of demand per capita.

Reduced consumption translates to lower demand per capita that helps energy supply to keep up with population growth. This is always a big policy issue as the need for new power plants and distribution infrastructure is a huge impost on the economic system of any society.

#3 Because it makes sense.

Energy conservation is easily the most economical solution to energy shortages.

These are pretty good reasons to be frugal, yet we are not. The pattern suggested in the anecdote is confirmed by data from around the world. As our societies develop so we consume more energy, both in total and per capita.

We tend to think that hurt to our hip pockets is a really strong motivator, but as far as energy conservation is concerned it can’t do enough to stave off the combined pressure of more people and greater affluence.

Enter anthropogenic climate change . The new reason for energy conservation, as most of our energy sources (coal, oil, gas) are made of fossil carbon that is released to the atmosphere as CO2 when we unlock the energy. Surely now we will begin to conserve energy.

Well, so far it seems we have a little, but nowhere near enough to compensate for growing affluence, more people (every hour 8,000 new people join the global throng), and emissions reduction targets.

It seems that we can’t do enough by changing the light bulbs or even swopping our plasma screens for the new wafer thin stick-on screens that some clever engineer will invent. Even if we live in very different types of house, shower less, wear jumpers in winter and cop the sweat in summer it will be tough to reduce energy consumption through conservation.

More likely we will change everything and use even more energy but from clean sources.

We have yet to fully grasp what that will mean.

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