What if we should use more energy, not less?

by Snorkelfarsan8 min read16th Oct 202112 comments

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Book ReviewsTechnological ForecastingFuturismProgress Studies
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Declining growth rates and technological stagnation since the 70s correlate with flatlining energy use per capita.

I've been reading "Where Is My Flying Car?: A Memoir of Future Past" by J Storrs Hall. Ostensibly a book about a promised future that never arrived, it's a broader commentary on a technologically stagnating culture and society. A few others have reviewed it here on Less Wrong already, and Jason Crawford has a great summary and commentary of the book at Roots of Progress

I'm sharing this post here to get feedback on the coherence of the idea that declining growth rates and the technological stagnation since the 70s strongly correlate with flatlining energy use per capita:

A key takeaway from the book has been the counter-intuitive realization that perhaps one of the main reasons for the so-called "Great Stagnation" is the western world's flatlining energy usage (per capita). But given our overall increase in energy consumption (mostly due to the growth of the developing world), one can be forgiven for having missed this - especially as we're trying to deal with a warming climate by using less energy. Yet this drive towards efficiency and the resultant decline in energy usage among developed nations, at least according to Hall, may be one of our biggest mistakes of the past half-century.

The Great Stagnation - as readers of Less Wrong are likely familiar with - is the term coined/popularized by economist Tyler Cowen which is now used to describe the current period since the ~70s of declining economic and technological growth experienced by most developed nations. This is perfectly exemplified by the fact that almost every important piece of technology we use in our day-to-day lives and in industries where invented before the 60s. This includes things like refrigerators, freezers, vacuum cleaners, gas and electric stoves, and washing machines; indoor plumbing, detergent, and deodorants; electric lights; cars, trucks, and buses; tractors and combines; fertilizer; air travel, containerized freight, the vacuum tube, and the transistor; the telegraph, telephone, phonograph, movies, radio, and television.

Although this stagnation is surely a result of a wide range of social, economic, and technological factors; like the fact that we've already picked a lot of the "long hanging fruit" of technological innovation since the start of the industrial revolution, or that most women have moved into the workforce since the second world war. According to (my interpretation of) Hall, the underlying cause of this stagnation is our stagnating energy usage. Or put differently, the decline in the growth rate of energy usage in advanced economies. Which is a result of a shift from a focus on progress in tech to a focus on the efficiency of tech.

In other words, we have had a very long-term trend in history going back at least to the Newcomen and Savery engines of 300 years ago, a steady trend of about 7% per year growth in usable energy available to our civilization. Let us call it the “Henry Adams Curve.” The optimism and constant improvement of life in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries can quite readily be seen as predicated on it. To a first approximation, it can be factored into a 3% population growth rate, a 2% energy efficiency growth rate, and a 2% growth in actual energy consumed per capita. Here is the Henry Adams Curve, the centuries-long historical trend, as the smooth red line. Since the scale is power per capita, this is only the 2% component. The blue curve is actual energy use in the US,   which up to the 70s matched the trend quite well. But then energy consumption flatlined.

The story of human progress is largely a story of how much energy we have been able to harness and put to productive use. Starting with our early ancestor’s ability to harness fire to the discovery that we could split the atom, and beyond. Declining energy usage is therefore a problem because technological innovation and growth are tightly correlated with increased energy consumption, and technological innovation is one of the main drivers of progress. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that in order to drive innovation broadly, we have to use more energy because advanced technologies are generally more energy-intensive. All things equal, increased energy efficiency is great, but all things aren't equal and we've traded growth for efficiency.

The extent to which a technology didn’t live up to its Jetson’s-era expectations is strongly correlated with its energy intensity. The one area where progress continued most robustly—Moore’s Law in computing and communications—was the one where energy was not a major concern.

The one notable exception to this is the computing revolution which birthed the Information Technology industry - arguably the only technological revolution we've had since the ~60s. Computing, driven by improvements in semi-conductor performance and computing power according to Moore's Law, is perhaps the only area where increased energy consumption beyond what was available in the 70s hasn't been needed to keep up [with Moore's Law]. As such, it has been able to grow despite the focus on energy efficiency. Not surprisingly, nearly all of today's most valuable companies by market cap are tech/IT companies.

No one captured this as eloquently as Peter Thiel when he said:

"We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.

So if we want to see continued improvements to our quality of life and progress as a civilization, we need new technological revolutions in the world of atoms and not just bits. Nanotech, flying cars, space travel, biomedicine. All those things are possible but they will demand a lot more energy; in addition to less regulation, better academic institutions, and a culture that wants growth, according to Hall.

Needless to say, the flatlining of energy usage has had a profound effect on our current predicament. Given how our modern society and political systems work, steady economic growth seems crucial for the continued existence of peaceful and prosperous civilizations (stagnation or "degrowth" leads to zero-sum competition for resources). The effects of stagnating growth may even be more detrimental than the effects of climate change in the short to medium term. And faster technological progress may be just what we need in order to deal with climate change, rather than less progress.

What is then the cause of this decline in the growth of energy usage? Probably the drive for efficiency over effectiveness (for ideological reasons), stricter regulation of science and technology since the middle of the 20th century, including many energy-producing industries, and a culture that's often opposed to technological progress. The decline in energy use per capita started in the 70s and largely coincides with the spread of the counter-cultures of the 60s, including the green movement. Of course, not all regulations are bad or unnecessary, but it's not very clear that strict regulation actually makes us much safer and healthier overall, and in fact, the opposite may be true:

"Economists John Dawson and John Seater recently published a study in the Journal of Economic Growth, “Federal Regulation and Aggregate Economic Growth”, [82]  that put some hard numbers to these observations. The result is startling: America’s median household income is now $53,000. If we had simply maintained the amount of regulation we had in 1949 since then, our income would now be $185,000 per household."

In retrospect, the utopian science fiction from the first half of the 20th century looks ridiculous. Flying cars and robot maids perhaps best illustrated by the Jetson's cartoon is something we laugh at today. But when you plot the growth trends from that era it was perfectly reasonable to predict its continuation for many more decades or centuries. In fact, the economist Alex Tabarrok (a colleague with Tyler Cowen) made just this point in a recent blog post on Marginal Revolution, The Future is Getting Farther Away:

If total factor productivity had continued to grow at its 1957 to 1973 rate then we today would be living in the world of 2076 rather than in the world of 2014.

While we probably can't expect growth to continue forever, it's not at all a given that it must decline now. And the better tech we have, the more smart people (and machines) there are, and the better our political systems, the better our chances of dealing with that eventuality.

It's quite clear to me that the current myopic and dystopian narrative that's captured a large part of the western zeitgeist is largely explained by our declining growth, just like the perhaps overoptimistic extrapolations of the early 20th century is explained by that eras ever-increasing growth trends.

Nevertheless, if we look at our (economic) growth trajectory on the time frame of many thousands of years, we're still in the early stages of hypergrowth and judging by the trend, we can expect it to continue for some time - which is a cause for optimism.

The need for growth in a finite world is often criticized as a greedy and selfish impulse, but I believe we need continued growth exactly to solve some of our most pressing problems, including climate change, poverty, and a stagnating quality of life. And to do that, we must dare to use more energy, not less.

Obviously, we don't want to burn more fossil fuels than we are doing yet we shouldn’t minimize the importance that fossil fuels have played and still play in our society. Luckily, we already have a viable technology that provides clean and reliable energy with zero emissions: it's called nuclear energy. Although we should and have to continue improving other alternative energy sources (including solar, wind and even nuclear fusion!), and stop using fossil fuels asap, we can only do that if create the right incentives and provide the right mechanisms for technological innovation. The conclusion to me, then, is that our drive towards efficiency before we've reached some sort of technological maturity may be undermining the long-term potential of our civilization and the near-term viability of our modern societies.


P.S. Tyler Cowen has recently said that he now thinks we might be coming out of the great stagnation in the near future, something mainly driven by innovations across various fields of technology and science like computing, AI, Space tech, biotech, etc; that all converge into general-purpose innovations.

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A large part of the stagnation in energy consumption seems to be that the cost of energy hasn't gone down much. The sixties and seventies marked a point where identifying and exploiting natural energy sources (mostly coal and oil) started to increase more rapidly in capital cost per unit energy produced. It seems that the last fifty years have been the beginning of the end for that whole class of energy production, which fueled the past two hundred years of growth.  We are only now seeing the results of investment into alternatives.

Solar power in particular has plummeted in cost by many orders of magnitude, which is truly amazing. There are signs that it may become cheaper still. Nuclear power may become both cheaper and safer, but regardless of whether regulation costs too much now, it might not have a very much lower cost floor. We don't know, and it might be worth finding out.

The interesting thing about solar power in particular is that it is pretty much purely capital-based. Unlike oil wells and coal mines relying on specific deposits that become exhausted, the production of energy from sunlight increases almost linearly with the amount you invest in it up to a small but significant fraction of the planet's surface, and will produce essentially forever. There's an upper bound based on maintenance and replacement of the equipment, but that limit seems likely to be at least 10 times larger than our current total energy production.

That's just one of multiple possible energy sources that we're working on. There are certainly major transition problems, but in the long run I think we're now starting to head out of energy stagnation.

Solar power in particular has plummeted in cost by many orders of magnitude

You need to take into account the base here. Same with batteries. If something goes from ludicrously expensive to just plain very expensive, it is not so impressive. 

I spent 3 months trying to put together a picture of what a 100% renewable energy economy would look like. When you take into account a) the need to build and maintain the RE infrastructure using RE (currently it is almost all done with fossil fuels for cost reasons) b) the vast infrastructure needed per Gw generated due to the low density of RE sources, c) intermittency which means you require a lot of redundancy, a lot of storage, a lot of cables, and backup dispatchable power (ask Germans right now!). The need for backup dispatchable power means that even if RE were free, it would still not be cheaper, because you still have to have the backup dispatchable power stations. So the RE cost is additional,

The total system cost is enormous.

FWIW my conclusion was a minimum 30-50% hit on living standards, and at worst it cannot actually work. If you want to bring the whole world up to 1st world living standards it is not at all possible. 

> [solar] effectively forever

Solar installations have a very limited life span of the order of 10 years. And a very serious waste disposal problem. Similarly with wind turbines.

So no, not forever. While OP alludes to "maintenance costs" this by no means captures the extent of the problem.

For clarity I think AGW is a real, serious, man-made problem. But that does not imply that a solution is easy, or even possible. In any case, irrespective of the AGW issue, fossil fuels are running out and we need a solution, or we will be forced to dramatically reduce energy use and living standards. 

People will say you can have a high living standard while consuming little energy. OK then, show me a country with very high living standard and low energy use. And 10kw/person is a lot of energy.

I spent 3 months trying to put together a picture of what a 100% renewable energy economy would look like.

I would love to see a detailed write-up about this, or absent that, what do you think is the best currently available write-up on this topic, that comes closest to the truth?

Solar installations have a very limited life span of the order of 10 years.

What's the source of this? I've only seen talk of ~30-year lifetimes for solar, for example https://cleantechnica.com/2020/06/30/how-have-expectations-for-useful-life-of-utility-scale-pv-plants-in-the-us-changed-over-time/

I’ve yet to delve into it, but RethinkX - a think tank, doubtless with an axe to grind - take similar ingredients and produce a result pointing in the opposite direction: RE is cheap, storage is relatively expensive, so the optimal solution is RE overcapacity with storage filling the gap that remains, and volatile energy prices, often very low, sometimes quite high. A large gas- or coal-fired power plant is not at all optimised for this market, and they don’t advise you to own one. See, for example: https://www.rethinkx.com/energy-lcoe.

I think there are very many moving parts here when dealing with RE intermittency. Grid-scale storage is the obvious one, but there’s also vehicle-to-grid, and all kinds of thermal storage at the point of use (since providing heat and cooling is a major use of electricity, and thermal storage can be cheaper than storing electricity as electricity). Add to that all the principal-agent problems (the landlord owns the HVAC, and the tenant has to grit their teeth and pay for it) and time lags (how long does it take to build a 2GW power plant?)…

The need for backup dispatchable power means that even if RE were free, it would still not be cheaper, because you still have to have the backup dispatchable power stations

 

This is somewhat true for the capital cost of the backup/dispatchable plant, but not the operating cost, which includes fuel, and any notion of the cost of the emissions (whether via carbon tax, cap and trade, or notional non–financial cost) (and, as far as AGW is concerned, the emissions are the important factor here).

Interesting!

Do you buy the premise (or perhaps the conclusion) that the energy stagnation of the past ~50 years is one of the key reasons why "the future" hasn't yet been realized in the way that one might have assumed back then, had we been more willing to use the required amount of energy to produce and sustain those innovations (like flying cars and nanotech)?

The future very rarely goes the way we predict.

That said, I never thought that flying cars were a reasonable expectation for the near future, mainly because the failure modes are terribly bad and keeping them from happening at intolerable rates is incredibly expensive. Even if we were very rich, they were powered by Mr Fusion, and piloted by infallible software, occasional mechanical defects alone would make them not something I'd want to use every day.

We do have nanotech already, just not the "build everything for free" magical wish fulfillment nanotech. More energy wouldn't have helped that much, there are lots of very real problems at that scale that we still know little about solving. We may get further toward magical wish fulfillment nanotech in time, but it will take a lot of brainpower not horsepower.

I can see how oodles more energy would mean more housing, construction, spaceflight, and so on, leading to higher GDP and higher quality of life. I don't see how it would lead to revolutions in biotech and nanotech – surely the reason we haven't cured aging or developed atomically precise manufacturing aren't the energy requirements to do those things.

Given my reading of his arguments in the book, it does seem that at least nanotech and nano-scale manufacturing at a societal scale would require much more energy than we have been willing to provide it, so in effect, maybe using a lot more energy in the short term is a prerequisite? Of course, there are also all the regulatory issues and the Machiavellian "power struggles" in academia that Hall claims as reasons for why we don't have advanced nanotech already. 
Biotech might be different though since a lot of innovation there is mediated by computing and software.

"at least nanotech and nano-scale manufacturing at a societal scale would require much more energy than we have been willing to provide it"

Maybe, but:
1) If we could build APM on a small scale now we would

2) We can't

3) This has nothing to do with energy limits

(My sense is also that advanced APM would be incredibly energy efficient and also would give us very cheap energy – Drexler provides arguments for why in Radical Abundance.)

 

I don't think regulatory issues have hurt APM either (agree they have in biotech, though). Academic power struggles have hurt nanotech (and also biotech), though this seems to be the case in every academic field and not particularly related to creeping institutional sclerosis (over the past several hundred years, new scientific ideas have often had trouble breaking in through established paradigms, and we seem less bad on this front than we used to be). Regardless, neither of these issues would be solved with more energy, and academic power struggles would still exist even in the libertarian state Hall wants. 

"The decline in energy use per capita started in the 70s and largely coincides with the spread of the counter-cultures of the 60s, including the green movement. Of course, not all regulations are bad or unnecessary, but it's not very clear that strict regulation actually makes us much safer and healthier overall, and in fact, the opposite may be true:"

 

Or maybe, you know, there happened to be an oil crisis in 1973 when oil prices increased by 400%, and energy usage per capita has declined ever since because energy went from super cheap to increasingly expensive ?

Indeed at a first approximation technology is about finding cool ways to use cheap energy.