Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Prosperity for Rich Folks

Prosperity (and Electricity) for Rich Folks

Morality for Beautiful Girls is the title of a book in Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. The title raises all kinds of intriguing questions: Is it harder for beautiful girls to be moral? Do beautiful girls need morality? Why would morality be different for "beautiful girls" than for anyone else?

Similarly, the question of electricity use in prosperous nations raises questions. The curve of kilowatt hours versus dollars per capita is pretty straight for at the lower levels of both (below $15,000 a year per capita and I recently blogged this in Why I Love Nuclear. I explained the need for more electricity use, especially in poor countries. Prosperity and electricity improve people's lives, especially the lives of women. Near the same time, Rod Adams did an excellent post about energy and prosperity, and my own post received many thoughtful comments. I was happy to see that all the comments agreed with the necessity of improving lives in poor countries with electricity.

However, us rich folks in the U S were another story. Maybe we need to use less electricity, not more? It's possible.

Are Rich Nations Wasteful Nations?

Let's look at two opposing views. Friend2all posted these comments on my blog post:

There is a large and even dominant segment of opinion that places as first priority item in energy policy the objective to strive first for energy efficiency as the lowest hanging fruit in a plan for providing energy for America's future.......

The method commonly proposed to reduce the use of energy presently is to increase the cost of energy .... Our slide would suggest that the unintended result of increasing the cost of energy, and thereby decreasing the use of energy, is a shrinking economy and a lower GDP per capita.

The consensus view is that the less painful way to get America out of its economic problems is to grow the economy.

However Karen Street posted this opposing view (Ms. Street blogs at A Musing Environment):

However, there is another thread about energy use important to acknowledge: a lot of behavior in the wealthier countries is conspicuous consumption--larger cars and appliances than needed, leaving stuff on when it isn't being used, driving when we can walk. This is true for both rich and poor first worlders....

The poor deserve access to clean energy.....

I add this because it can sound as if people advocating for the poor are also advocating for my right to waste. A lot more people will agree with you if you make this point.

So there we have it. Does America need more energy, or should we learn to make do with less, and be less wasteful?

This is mostly a philosophical question, and so I will approach it philosophically. What kind of country do we want?

A Short Punt with Uncomfortable Facts

Before I start philosophizing, however, I want to point out that America's energy infrastructure is aging, and power plants need to be replaced and expanded, just to keep the energy use we have now. As CNN reports, blackout rates are skyrocketing in many areas of the country. Since building power plants is not easy to arrange, many people hope that the Smart Grid will be able to levelize use instead.

Just as an example of aging infrastructure: According to CNN, Japan averages four minutes of power outages per user per year, not counting weather-related disasters. For the Midwest, that number is 92 minutes, and for the Northeast (my home) the number is 214 minutes. (Thank heavens, Vermont Yankee has a capacity factor of over 90%, and is mitigating this problem.)

A utility executive from Austin Texas was quoted in CNN: High-tech manufacturers want to locate their factories in places where electricity is most reliable, said Carvallo. "That's where the manufacturing facilities move to. That's where you get your high-paying jobs."

Jobs are important. America is hurting in terms of jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports (August 6) that 14.6 million people are currently unemployed, of whom 6.6 million are long-term unemployed (more than 27 weeks). Most people agree we could use some job growth in this supposedly rich country of ours. I would be happy to see growth in electricity use, if that will help.

Now, back to morality.

What Is Waste? What is Philosophy? What is the Good Life? Etc.

First, let's distinguish between efficiency and waste.

Efficiency is always good. I am on the Energy Committee for my town. We sponsor weatherization workshops, and we have encouraged the recent installation of LED traffic lights. We are moving toward LED street lights, too.

Efficiency of energy use is always good, and should be encouraged. Making the same product (a warm home, a well-lit street) with less input is always a Good Thing. On the other hand, efficiency often pays for its capital cost fairly quickly, so even in a complete free-market economy, Efficiency Happens. Efficiency is a practical issue, but not a moral one (in my opinion).


Waste is a moral issue, and Karen Street is concerned with the idea that I am encouraging a right to waste. Alas. I am. I don't like to legislate morality with taxes, scarce supply, etc. And I believe that every good thing will be misused by someone.

For example, I will have a glass of wine with dinner, and someone else will drive drunk. Since some people abuse alcohol, should we bring back prohibition? I don't think so. It didn't work the first time. People have free will, and people abuse all sorts of things. Energy is no different.

Also, I am not nearly as certain that I know what waste is and what waste isn't. Maybe I am mellowing out.

For example, I personally dislike SUVs and think nobody needs a car that big. However, I know sincere moms who feel it is far safer to drive kids around Vermont winter roads in a BIG car. They have made a safety assessment, and are willing to pay more for the car, and more for gas, for their kids' safety. Is their choice reasonable? Maybe. Shall I despise these women as energy abusers? I don't think so.

Or let's take smaller refrigerators. I find it amazing and annoying that so many people keep a spare refrigerator humming all the time out in the garage. These refrigerators are filled with beer and soft drinks. By golly, such things should be banned!

Or should they? Should we all be mandated to have small, European-style refrigerators? Many European housewives shop regularly, several times a week, which is adorable and a lovely life-style--unless you are person like me, who combined housewifery with responsible jobs. I couldn't possibly shop so often.

When I was working, I loaded up on groceries once a week, sometimes twice. In other words, my choices involved a big refrigerator and a station wagon. A big refrigerator meant I could have two kids and a career. If no "American-size" refrigerators had been available, it would have been very hard for me to work.

In other words, I wish people were more mindful, less wasteful, and generally all-around better. But I respectfully disagree with Karen about too-big appliances, too-big cars, and so forth. I think these can be reasonable choices.

I am advocating for her right to waste. Even in rich countries, abundant energy gives people more choices, including the choice to drive an SUV and have a fridge full of soft drinks in the garage. Some people use those choices "wastefully" in my opinion. They might well think the same of my choices.

Abundant energy means freedom of choice. Especially for women. Even in a rich country.

Sidebar: Meredith Being Really Really Snotty

My husband is a man of firm opinions, and one of his firm opinions is that he did not want a TV set in his house. In forty years of marriage, we have never owned a TV. However, we bought a set to watch movies on DVD, and we enjoy them.

So, from my point of view, TV is all a big waste. All those stations burning kilowatthours to transmit stupid pictures of disasters and The Biggest Loser. Who needs it? I don't. Talk about wasteful!

I agree with the Oompah Loompahs on this. (In the video link, the Oompah Loompah views of excessive TV watching starts after about two minutes.)

I have added this this rant to prove that dissing people's "wasteful" choices is a bad idea. You diss my refrigerator, I'll diss your TV. This kind of acrimony is not a good way to celebrate diversity. We all deserve the freedom to choose the lifestyle that reflects our hopes and values.

So, let's not go around saying "wasteful, bad girl, wasteful." Let's just have lots of clean energy instead. From nuclear, of course.

Prosperity graph courtesy of Robert Hargraves. LED traffic light from Wikimedia Commons.


Kit P said...

How about comparing something important to energy use like cholera deaths?

One other thing, you may want to avoid deciding what the cause of blackouts are without a RCA. Yes you can decide based on a CNN story quoting an ignorant college professor with a 'smart' grid agenda but I would compare well managed utilities and not not regions.

Meredith Angwin said...

I don't understand the cholera deaths to energy use comment. Weanling diarrhea and the deaths of children in the third world could be solved with clean water. But clean water takes energy. I completely agree with you that cholera and other water-borne diseases are more important than the size of my refrigerator. But this post wasn't about that issue.

This post was about rich countries. In other words, should we be conserving more? Are we selfish and greedy and wasteful if we use a lot of energy? Etc

About your other point. I agree that the CNN quote was fairly weak. Still, I found the difference between 4 minutes and 90 minutes per year of outages to be a very striking difference, whether or not the area was well defined or the root causes were well-understood.

Kit P said...

It is complex but my frig is bigger than yours. I know this because cholera is something I have only read about.

Say what? I see no reason to spend a lot of brain power coming up with a logical argument to 'green'drivel.

Since I know how to make all the electricity you need with insignificant environmental impact, enjoy without gulit.

Well unless a little guilt makes it more enjoyable go for it in New England.

Meredith Angwin said...

Kit P

You wrote

Say what? I see no reason to spend a lot of brain power coming up with a logical argument to 'green'drivel.

Oh dear. Is blogging a waste of time? (just kidding).

This certainly gave me a smile this morning!


David said...


One definition of wealth is the capacity for choice. The more options I have, the more wealthy I am. The fewer options I have the poorer I am.

Steve Aplin said...

I live in Ottawa, Ontario: 45 degrees 22 minutes north. The sun goes down early in the fall and winter. I dislike the gloom of early evenings and late sunrises, so I keep lots of lights on. Incandescents, because I also dislike the gloom of compact fluorescents.

I couldn't care less about how much energy I "waste" keeping the lights on. I pay for the electricity.

I just walked home along a busy downtown street. There's a heat wave here, and pub owners try to entice customers to patronize their establishments by opening their street-side windows and letting overheated pedestrians feel the nice cool.

I know people who are offended by that, saying it is a "waste of electricity." Well, the pub owner pays for the electricity, and he can use it any way he pleases.

When we start nickel-and-diming this kind of stuff, we have lost track of why we electrified towns in the first place.

I heard the author of a book on Chinese restaurants in North America being interviewed on the radio. She said the reason most Chinese restaurants are extremely well-lit is because the early Chinese immigrants to North America came from a place where the only indoor light came from a single (CO-emitting) kerosene lamp, if the household could afford one at all. They loved the ability to provide their customers with a nice cheery well-lit environment -- it promotes free-spending socializaiton.

Karen Street said...

Meredith, thank you for your thoughtful post and here is my response: Are we richer if we make perceived convenience the priority? http://pathsoflight.us/musing/?p=1044