Desert Year:$3 Trillion Thought Experiment for Rio+20

Because I roam the desert a lot, the UV Index is something I pay attention to.  It is an international standard that measures the strength of ultraviolet radiation from the sun at a given time and place. Canada was the first to adopt such an index in 1992. The U.S. followed in 1994, as have any subsequent number of countries since that time.  Today the World Health Organization (WHO) has standardized the UV Index by replacing the many different regional methods that otherwise provided an inconsistent set of results.

A UV index of zero is essentially a nighttime reading.  An index of 10 (highlighted by the color red) roughly corresponds to the midday sun beating down on the earth through a clear sky.  Here on the desert we often hit the extreme, at noon, with index of 11.  That is the color purple and not really all that uncommon.  And as I reflected on the thought experiment I am about to describe, yes, I was out on the desert floor at roughly the time when the UV Index hit purple.

Knowing my exposure, I suspect some are likely to think that the intense sunshine will explain my estimate of a $3 trillion loss to the U.S. economy. But, I was properly protected and not really outside for all that long. And if we step back to think about it, that very big number may prove a useful metric to help us understand the huge economic opportunities that await us – should we begin to think big about energy efficiency. And I discuss all of this in the context of the 2012 Earth Summit to be convened in Rio later this month. Continue reading…


Desert Year: Doing a 180 on Energy

Running with the lizards and doing a 180 on energy!

The heat of the season is beginning to arrive earlier in the morning. And on this particular day it seemed especially sensible to get out ahead of the sun – well before it began to beat down with any real strength.  So I headed out early for a leisurely morning amble.  The route took me up a road that has very high curbs to channel the water from the fall monsoons. On this specific stretch of curb there was a single lizard, hugging the side of the concrete wall.  It scurried maybe 10 feet ahead of me as I approached, and then it stopped.  As I again advanced within three feet, it jumped ahead maybe another 8-10 feet, still hugging the curbside. And then again. . . .

I don’t have a clue why the lizard insisted on moving forward with me, hugging tightly to the pavement sidewall. The smarter thing, it seemed to me, would have been to scurry at a very quick right angle away from me to safety.  Yet, as I again approached it for perhaps the fifth time, it suddenly turned 180 degrees and bolted past me in the opposite direction – leaving me alone with my thoughts.  Although the suddenness of its movement startled me, I reflected a little and thought . . . that was very cool. And I immediately wondered why it is that we are so often dogged in maintaining our existing course of action?

A Changing of the Minds?

The good news is that people can and they sometimes do change their minds. Not to distract from his current predicament, in 2006 Rupert Murdoch, for example, “had a change of heart on climate change and now believes global action is needed.” Also changing his mind on climate change? Bjorn Lomborg who claimed for many years that climate was not an especially important issue to address. Yet in 2010 he released a new book with new equations stating the exact opposite. The indication is that while did change his mind, he hugely underestimates what might be an appropriate scale of mitigation effort. His current thinking recommends that we should spend $100 billion a year to mitigate and avoid the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions. The evidence, however, suggests it should be many times larger.  Continue reading…


Desert Year: How Old is Old? How Big is Big?

John ‘Skip” Laitner is an economist, enjoying a desert year while on research sabbatical  from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. Skip is discovering some surprising insights from his time in the desert that can inform the way one looks at the economy and social systems.

As the monsoon season gently shifts into the fall, a second dry season for the flora and fauna of the Sonoran Desert begins. I was out wandering in the light of lingering afternoon sun, observing how the waxy leaves of the creosote bush reflect a pleasant hue of green, when I stopped to admire a particularly nice bush.  I looked around and quickly realized that in this part of the desert I was surrounded by a lot of creosote bushes. As I walked up to that first bush and caressed its leaves, I began to wonder how old that particular bush might actually be.

It turns out that all of the plants that I was looking at on that glorious autumn day were likely genetically identical clones of a single original bush.  Saguaros and the Foothill Paloverdes are known to live for 200 years or more.  One famous Creosote Bush in the Mojave Desert, known affectionately as the King Clone, is thought to be 11,700 years old. It is considered one of the oldest living organisms on Earth.  Even some species of desert lizards are clones.  Sonoran Spotted Whiptail lizards are all parthenogenic females. I wondered  if this reptilic sisterhood might collectively be the desert’s oldest lizard.

Spotted Whiptail Lizard

The mind then wanders in some mysterious way and for some reason I thought of a recent news story about the Arctic Ocean’s outer continental shelf. The federal government estimates the oil and natural gas reserves there to be 26.6 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 130 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.  Assuming that these resources can be safely and inexpensively produced, that could produce a lot of energy. But how big is that? Continue reading…


Desert Year: The Third Industrial Revolution

John ‘Skip” Laitner is an economist, enjoying a desert year while on research sabbatical  from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. Skip is discovering some surprising insights from his time in the desert that can inform the way one looks at the economy and social systems. In a series of posts entitled Desert Year, Skip lends us his new insights, as well as his 40 years of experience as an energy and natural resource economist, to probe the economic, climate, and energy challenges that confront us.

This latest post appeared first on the Huffington Post. It is reposted here with permission.

We are used to thinking — or even believing it is our heritage — that our economy will grow at maybe 2 percent above the annual growth in our population. So if our population increases by 1 percent, then we assume the economy will grow maybe 3 percent in any given year. And if we maintain that level of growth, then yes, we can support the new jobs necessary to provide for our nation’s economic well-being.

But we are in different times. Social visionary Jeremy Rifkin provides perhaps the critical insight in this regard. In his new book, the Third Industrial Revolution, Rifkin offers a compelling narrative that highlights the need to transition away from an older, less productive way of doing things — relying on “the second industrial revolution technologies and systems” of the 20th century — and moving instead into a newer and more intelligent way of providing the needed goods and services. Why is this important?

George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen suggests in his own book from last year that we are in the midst of what he calls, The Great Stagnation. This is the result, he suggests, from “living off low-hanging fruit for at least 300 hundred years. We have built social and economic institutions on the expectation of a lot of low-hanging fruit, but that fruit is mostly gone.” Rifkin makes the compelling case that without a substantial investment that enables our transition into the Third Industrial Revolution, we may be left without the new fruits that can ensure a more sustainable economy. Continue reading…


Desert Year: Shedding Leaves and Jobs

John ‘Skip” Laitner is an economist, enjoying a desert year while on research sabbatical  from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. Skip is discovering some surprising insights from his time in the desert that can inform the way one looks at the economy and social systems. In a series of posts entitled Desert Year, Skip lends us his new insights, as well as his 40 years of experience as an energy and natural resource economist, to probe the economic, climate, and energy challenges that confront us.

An Interesting Adaptation

The Ocotillo plant, up close and personal, right here in the Arizona Sonoran Desert, is an intriguing desert shrub. It knows how to survive. 

After the first serious rain it can grow its leaves amazingly fast in just a couple of days. And then it holds them for as long as the rains continue – whether into the spring or during the current monsoon season. 

But it drops its leaves just as quickly when the rains end. It grows them fast, and sheds them just as fast. 

The Octillo Plant

On the other hand, we have the example of  the Hampton, Maryland‑based clothing retailer, Jos. A. Bank, which seems to be thriving in spite of the economy’s current sluggishness.  Curiously, it even offered at one point to take back its suits from men who had been laid off.

 Hmmm…  A common thread?  An interesting adaptation?

 I’m one of those economists who think the new normal will be a very sluggish economy for some years to come. Continue reading…


Desert Year: Robust Economy and Lessons of the Sonoran Agave

John ‘Skip” Laitner is an economist, enjoying a desert year while on research sabbatical  from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. Skip is discovering some surprising insights from his time in the desert that can inform the way one looks at the economy and social systems. In a series of posts entitled Desert Year, Skip lends us his new insights, as well as his 40 years of experience as an energy and natural resource economist, to probe the economic, climate, and energy challenges that confront us.

A Robust Economy

There is a good deal of worry about the robustness of our nation’s economy. And rightly so. Especially since we have about 5 million fewer jobs today than in 2007, even as we have about 10 million more people to support with those available jobs.

In an effort to understand why economic performance has been so lackluster, we are constantly taking our economic temperature.  We measure it every way we can.  But it is also true that – other than the occasional surprise – what you measure is what you find; and we may not be measuring all of the right things.

The current measure of our economic well‑being is the ebb and flow of dollars transacted in the marketplace.  These dollars are usually indexed against things like investment, labor output or population.  From these various indices we suppose that we can obtain a reading on how well the economy is doing. Continue reading…


Think Energy Efficiency Isn’t Working? Think Again.

Real Climate Economics writer Frank Ackerman has a good piece published on Grist this week explaining why energy efficiency improvements are, in fact, working. Frank does an excellent job decoding the latest Energy Information Administration data that is confusing, at best, and misleading at worst.

by Frank Ackerman

Imagine a press release with this message: We’re not using more household energy than we used to — and the latest data won’t be available until next year. If you read that, I’m guessing you would join me in yawning and moving on to the next story.

That is what the Energy Information Administration (EIA), the federal agency that tracks our energy usage, just said — but it said it in a confusing way that sounded like a much bigger story, and was almost designed to mislead readers. Jess Zimmerman, writing in Grist, was among those whom they succeeded in misleading. Zimmerman’s article, “How Americans defeated efficiency with consumerism,” says that average household energy use has remained stable even as appliances have become more efficient, because we all have more appliances now.

That’s a plausible story, but it’s not actually what the EIA said. Every four years, the EIA does its Residential Energy Consumption Survey; it just released half of the results for the latest, 2009, survey. We now know how many households used each fuel and owned each type of appliance in 2009. For example, virtually every household uses some amount of electricity, and 49 percent heat with natural gas. The more important half of the results, showing how much of each fuel was used by each type of appliance in 2009, will be released sometime next year.

At the same time, EIA released a very old-news comparison of energy use in 1978 and 2005, the previous survey year. That comparison showed that total — not average — household energy use was roughly unchanged. But during the same years, the U.S. population grew by 33 percent, and the number of households grew by 45 percent (because average household size shrank a bit).

(Read the rest of the essay at Grist…)


Rebounds and Jevons: Nobody Goes There Anymore. It’s Too Crowded

This is the second post in a series on the rebound effect and energy efficiency by Real Climate Economics blogger James Barrett. It  originally appeared in the Great Energy Challenge blog, in partnership with National Geographic and Planet Forward

My last post on David Owen’s piece in the New Yorker and on the Jevons effect stirred up some interesting questions and discussion that I want to follow up on here. My last one purposely avoided some of the more technical parts of the issue to keep it readable and under my word limit. I think I’m about to undo that.

But first we should pay thanks to the great 20th Century philosopher, Yogi Berra, from whom I shamelessly stole the title of this post. Though he discovered it nearly 100 years after Stanley Jevons, I believe his exploration of the Jevons effect is more complete and accurate than Jevons’ own, as well as being vastly shorter. The notion that we could get so efficient at using energy that we’d end up using more is about as valid as the idea that a restaurant could get so crowded that it was empty. Continue reading…


Rebounds Gone Wild

This post by Real Climate Economics blogger James Barrett originally appeared on the Great Energy Challenge blog, in partnership with National Geographic and Planet Forward.

Energy efficiency has become very popular in recent years. So much so that it’s becoming cool for the truly hip to hold it in disdain.

Case in point: David Owen’s piece in this week’s New Yorker: The Efficiency Dilemma”  (subscription required).

It reads like he’s being contrary just for the sake of being contrary. I don’t want to make a habit of highlighting this type of work, and to do a thorough job of dismantling the piece would take more time and space than I have. But it generated some genuinely interesting conversations in my email this week and I have a hard time letting such poor and frankly lazy reasoning pass without comment.

As a compromise, I’ll try to focus more on the serious issues in the article and less on the serious issues I have with the article itself. Wish me luck. Continue reading…


To Improve Productivity, Improve Energy Policy

The year 2010 closed on a somber note that reminds us how important it is to turn the nation’s energy policy around in 2011.

It appears that U.S. energy intensity increased in 2010 for the first time since 1991. According to the latest data, the economy will have grown about 2.7% last year, but energy use will have increased by about 3.0%. The reason appears to be a hugely lagging investment in 2009 and 2010 (running at levels last seen in about 1998 and 1999), and a 19 percent increase in cooling degree days last year which forced the nation’s utilities to run flat out on some very inefficient generating units. Of course, these are preliminary estimates but the general pattern is likely to hold. And that does not bode well for the U.S. economy.

At the same time, the evidence continues to emerge that we will need to at least double our historic rate of energy efficiency improvement over the next several decades if we are to ensure a more robust and productive economy. This becomes all the more apparent as we note, based on research by Ayres and Warr, that our overall level of energy efficiency hovers at a rather anemic 13%.  The obvious implication? We waste 87% of all the energy that is used to support economic activity within the United States, and that level of waste constrains our overall productivity.

The good news is that there are huge cost-effective opportunities to increase our efficiency and to restore a greater level of robustness to the economy. More critically, the evidence also suggests this can be done despite a likely rebound effect. I might note in this last regard that, in all of our nation’s history, we have never really tried to simultaneously increase our productive capacity in ways that also allow us to reduce our total energy use. It is a daunting task to be sure, but we have the capacity to get it done – if we choose to develop those opportunities.