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Category — Jevons, W. S.

Energy ‘Rebounds’ and ‘Backfires’: An Introduction and Literature Overview

Much of today’s energy policy assumes that regulations mandating greater energy efficiency will reduce energy use. But that isn’t always the case, and energy efficiency improvements are seldom as large as promised by engineering calculations because of “rebounds.” Such is the most general conclusion from hundreds of studies pertaining to the effects of energy efficiency, whether market or nonmarket.

Such is the message from my literature review published by the Institute for Energy Research (pictured here):

For example, people who install lighting that is 50 percent more efficient frequently leave the lights on longer, negating some of the energy savings from greater efficiency. This is called an energy efficiency rebound. Sometimes these mechanisms even bring about net increases in energy use known as backfires.

Rebounds have a direct implication for energy efficiency mandates and incentives. If rebounds are substantial, efficiency policies will be less effective at reducing air pollutants, for example, because the “saved” energy gets consumed elsewhere. Energy consumption may even increase on net to cause backfires.

Rebounds, and certainly backfires, fall into the ‘unintended consequences’ category of government intervention into the complex market. It is reason to ‘let the market decide’ with energy usage, as in energy production. [Read more →]

July 17, 2012   5 Comments

ECONOMIST Debate on Renewable Energy (Part I: W. S. Jevons Lives!)

I am part of an online event hosted by The Economist magazine debating the proposition:

This house believes that subsidising renewable energy is a good way to wean the world off fossil fuels.

I am opposed. Defending the motion is Matthias Fripp, Research fellow, Environmental Change Institute and Exeter College, Oxford University, who defends renewables from the premise that “we must reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050 in order to avoid dangerous risks to the environment and ourselves.”

With my opening statement, I began with a recent observation by the rising UK intellectual star Matt Ridley and continued with the timeless insight of William Stanley Jevons. Readers of MasterResource know Jevons well from previous posts, but I wanted to make sure to put him front and center of this debate to awaken his homeland that he ‘refuted’ renewables nearly 150 years ago.

I also bring in crony capitalism, the popular term for rent-seeking businesses in the mixed economy (what I prefer to call political capitalism). That has to be a sore spot among the statists these days, not so much with Solyndra but because their renewables scheme involves so much back-room politicking (cough, cough).

My opening statement follows. Part II and Part III of our debate will follow in the next days. Be sure and vote! [Read more →]

November 9, 2011   8 Comments

Classical Energy Thinking: Right on Renewables (intermittency), Not-so-Right on Fossil Fuels (coming exhaustion)

“The winds, turning more mills than ever before, pump water, grind grain, churn, and do a score of little tasks for a surviving domestic industry; but they list not to blow with enough regularity or violence to keep wheels spinning and mills going.”

- Walton Hamilton and Helen Wright, The Case of Bituminous Coal (New York: Institute of Economics/Macmillan, 1926), p. 3.

William Stanley Jevons’s The Coal Question (1865), the book that founded mineral economics, got it right on the limits of renewables for the machine age and the godsend of coal as a superabundant utilitarian energy source.

Previous posts at MasterResource have summarized Jevons’s 19th century wisdom on the primacy of coal (carbon-based energy); the limits of windpower; the limits of hydropower, biomass, and geothermal; and the paradox of energy efficiency.

Obama energy policy–and all of his smartest-guys-in-the-room energy advisors–would benefit from the insights contained in this 144-year-old book.

But Jevons was too pessimistic on the future of coal and petroleum, as detailed in chapter 7 of my book Capitalism at Work: Business, Government, and Energy. And Jevons scarcely knew about the other foundational fuel of the carbon-based energy age: natural gas.

The Case of Bituminous Coal (Hamilton and Wright)

The 1926 book published by the Institute of Economics by Macmillan, The Case of Bituminous Coal, by Walton Hamilton and Helen Wright, offers an interesting update of the Jevons worldview of energy. Like Jevons, they got it right on the limitations of renewables and primacy of fossil fuels, but they got it wrong on a coming depletion of oil and gas in particular.

For the record, here is an excerpt from pages 2–5 of the book: [Read more →]

December 30, 2009   1 Comment

Industrial Wind Power: An Old, Tried Failure (the intermittency curse then and now)

Best of MasterResource: 2009
This post orginally appeared (with comments)
on March 4th

The disadvantage of windpower as a primary energy source has been long recognized. This 1838 textbook described the competitive situation of wind as follows:


 William Stanley Jevons also detailed the problems of windpower in his 1865 classic, The Coal Question, [Read more →]

December 29, 2009   7 Comments

W. S. Jevons and UK Coal Revisited (worth re-reading weekend)

In an earlier post at MasterResource, W. S. Jevons (1865) on Coal (Memo to Obama, Part III), the hall-of-fame-economist explained how coal was a godsend to Britain, powering the industrial revolution in a way that renewable energies could not.

I am reminded of Jevons with the headline from the June 17th Guardian, “Carbon capture plans threaten shutdown of all UK coal-fired power stations.” It read in part:

All of Britain’s coal-fired power stations, including Drax, the country’s largest emitter of carbon, could be forced to close down under radical plans unveiled by government today. Ed Miliband, the energy secretary, is proposing to extend his plans to force companies to fit carbon capture and storage technology (CCS) onto new coal plants – as revealed by the Guardian – to cover a dozen existing coal plants. The consultation published by his Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) conceded that if this happened “we could expect them to close”.

Timeless Wisdom from 1865

Here is the MasterResource post (January 31) on Jevons and coal. What would he think today of the politics and policies of climate change in his home country? [Read more →]

June 20, 2009   No Comments

Costa Rica Follow-Up: Fatal Dependence on Renewable Electricity (Tom Friedman's energy paradise loses its luck)

“When an abundant natural fall of water is at hand, nothing can be cheaper or better than water power. But everything depends upon local circumstances. The occasional mountain torrent is simply destructive. Many streams and rivers only contain sufficient water half the year round and costly reservoirs alone could keep up the summer supply. In flat countries no engineering art could procure any considerable supply of natural water power, and in very few places do we find water power free from occasional failure by drought.”

- W. S. Jevons, The Coal Question (London: Macmillan and Co., 1865), p. 129.

Thomas Friedman in the New York Times has presented Costa Rica as a model for the energy world, noting its reliance on renewable energy (hydro) to generate electricity. In response, we posted last week about how such dependence had left it vulnerable to the vagaries of rainfall, and (to a much lesser degree) wind. W. S. Jevons, the father of energy economics, said as much in 1865.

With all hydro development in the hands of the government, and with hydro responsible for 75-80% of power generation, any shortfall in rain can, within 1-2 weeks result in reduced electricity generation. And the odds have now caught up with Costa Rica – recent dryer conditions have led to blackouts in the country. [Read more →]

April 25, 2009   2 Comments

Wind: Energy Past, not Energy Future (the intermittency curse then, as now)

The disadvantage of windpower as a primary energy source has been long recognized. This 1838 textbook described the competitive situation of wind as follows:


 William Stanley Jevons also detailed the problems of windpower [Read more →]

March 4, 2009   13 Comments

W. S. Jevons (1865) on Energy Efficiency (Memo to Obama, Part IV)

The insights of William Stanley Jevons, though set down long ago, make a profound contribution to the current debate over energy efficiency and energy-conservation policy, and not just to the debate over the role of renewable energy in modern society. [Read more →]

February 2, 2009   2 Comments

W. S. Jevons (1865) on Coal (Memo to Obama, Part III)

Each renewable energy, Jevons explained, was either too scarce or too unreliable for the new industrial era. The energy savior was coal, a concentrated, plentiful, storable, and transportable source of energy that was England’s bounty for the world.

There was no going back to renewables. Coal–and that included oil and gas manufactured from coal–was the new master of the master resource of energy in the 18th and 19th centuries. As Jevons stated in the introduction (p. viii) of The Coal Question (1865): [Read more →]

January 31, 2009   4 Comments

W. S. Jevons (1865) on Waterpower, Biomass, and Geothermal (Memo to Obama, Part II)

W. S. Jevons in his early day recognized a central problem of windpower for powering machinery–intermittency. The wind does not always blow, and it cannot be known when this will occur, making an even flow of power (as from conventional sources) impossible short of cost-prohibitive battery backup.

What about the other renewables of the day: water power, biomass, and geothermal? [Read more →]

January 30, 2009   3 Comments