Energy use and CO2 emissions have declined in the U.S. for two years running. Part of it’s the recession, part of it’s substituting natural gas for coal. A bit of it is green technology being actually used. The rest is improved efficiency in the machines we run, from dishwashers and washing machines to cars and jet airplanes.
To keep it going we will have to keep innovating, much the same way innovation has gone on for decades in the computer industry. If there’s a Moore’s Law hiding someplace for energy efficiency, and we happen to find it, we can not only prolong this virtuous trend but export it.
It’s not all technology, of course–some of it’s legislative requirements or tax incentives. Increased use of Combined Heat and Power plants at the commercial level or ground source heat pumps at the residential scale owe a lot to government assistance. But innovation counts.
New commercial aircraft use 20% less fuel. Normally it would take decades for that to permeate through the fleet of aircraft being used. Could we speed that up? Technological innovation and government pushing, or customer pulling? It takes 13 years for innovation to spread through the car industry–and right now, out of close to a billion vehicles on the road, about 2.5 million are electric. Again, innovation is there but not being fed through.
Sometimes government impedes innovation, such as senatorial obstruction of solar plants here in California. The EPA’s move to regulate the top 900 stationary emitters doesn’t sound too draconian–if there are technical solutions available for them to put in place, and if there is assistance to make the changeover less traumatic.
Innovation can and will make a difference, if we let it and even help it along sometimes. Remember that washing machines used to use 4 times the energy they do today. The same is true of most household appliances. But it took legislation and Energy Star to make it happen.
Bending down the price performance curve is possible, as well as necessary. But it needs a push–from governments, regulators and citizens. A lot of skeptics are more virtuous in their personal consumption than high profile scaremongers like Al Gore. Examples count.
Moore’s Law worked in computers because companies adopted it as a road map, not because it was a law of nature. We could do the same in energy efficiency–if we were serious about it, as opposed to trying to scare the other guy into doing all the heavy lifting.