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Wednesday, 10 October 2012

A Contradiction of Goals

The German Umweltminister (Minister for the Environment) has unveiled an ambitious plan to reduce the national impact on the ecology. He wants, by 2020, to reduce energy consumption in Germany by 20%. Now, before we all collapse in laughter, he has actually come up with a wide range of suggestions as to how this can be achieved and a lot of them make a lot of sense. There is no doubt that a lot of energy is wasted at present, even in somewhere as "green" conscious as Germany. So, one focus of his plans, is to make a wide range of inefficient appliances more efficient.

That appeals to a lot of consumers, since it means they can save a lot against their energy bills. Even so, there is a cost. It means that everyone will need, by 2020, to have replaced all those aging and inefficient appliances such as the washing machine, fridge, freezer, TV, radio and so on.Good news for industry of course - but hold on, they have to make energy savings as well. So this means industry and commerce must also replace all equipment that is inefficient and aging. It also means someone has to find the money for it which, in industry and commerce, means the customer.

OK, some of this can actually be achieved by improving insulation and there is certainly a lot to be said for making buildings, operations and equipment much more efficient. There are other things that can be done, such as the conversion of heating systems and hot water provisions to solar power, or even, as in one building in Mainz, to local rather scifi appearing wind turbines that drive ventilation and generators for heating. But using less energy also means there has to be an absence of expansion of usage and users - and this is where things start to get a little more complicated.

The problem is that economists plan for constant growth. They assume that populations will continue to expand and consumers continue to buy. This is essential to a 'planned' economy whether it is 'capitalist' or 'communist.' Without growth you get stagnation, inflation and eventually stagflation. So now we have two Ministries in diametrically opposite positions. The one wants to shrink the 'growth' of energy use, the other wants to expand and 'grow' the economy which, by definition, means there has to be a corresponding increase in consumption. And that means that energy use must also rise.

Yes, some of that can be offset, but, as has been proved time and time again, more efficient energy consumption doesn't lead to reduction in use, just the opposite. Increasing the efficiency of petrol and diesel engines has led to greater long distance usage. Increasing the efficiency of lights, appliances and so on in the home has seen an increase in their use and a massive expansion of their provision. An example - my original Desktop PC used considerably more energy than the one I now have. The efficiency of the system has increased beyond all recognition of that original 16Mb unit, but so has the proliferation of them to the extent that the consumption of energy by these devices has increased despite the individual efficiency being so much better. As with the cars, trucks and busses, greater efficiency has led to greater use and greater fuel consumption - not a reduction. Similarly, even with all the 'energy saving' devices, average household energy consumption has risen. 

This is the dichotomy the planners face. In order to sustain the economy we have to plan for growth of the population, consumption and expansion of production. This means using more resources and more energy. On the other hand, the ecologists (Greens) want to shrink energy and resource consumption.

From where I sit, this looks like an impasse!

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