Conservation of Energy

No, not the physics-kind of conservation of energy. The kind where we save energy by using efficient light-bulbs, driving at 55mph, and wearing a sweater like Jimmy Carter wanted us to. I think it is over-rated.

I don't want to sound like too much of a crank here; I am not in any way opposed to conservation. There really isn't much of a downside. I just don't think that conservation programs are likely to yield any lasting improvement in our energy situation.

One reason for this is that part of the savings in energy that might come from more efficiency will be offset by increased consumption. Take compact fluorescent bulbs for example. In our home we are gradually replacing our incandescent bulbs with these more efficient models. They save money and energy in the long run, but not as much as you might think. Rather than replace a 60Watt incandescent with at "60Watt equivalent" CFL, I often use a "100Watt equivalent" CFL. This allows me to get more light out of fixtures in dingy areas of the house. There is still an energy savings, since a 100Watt equivalent CFL uses fewer than 60Watts, but there is not as much savings as proponents claim. Similarly, someone who buys a car that gets better mileage may well drive more, thereby lessening the fuel savings.

Finally, and most important, energy conservation of say 20% would only buy us about 7 1/2 years before we are right back in the same boat. This is assuming a modest growth rate of 3% for the economy. My guess is that 20% is a lot, in that it would take a lot of effort and belt-tightening to gain that sort of efficiency. See the graph below which shows how many years we "buy" for percentage gains in efficiency. What's more, I don't think this sort of conservation can be thought of as a resource we can keep tapping into. With decreasing marginal returns, each additional belt-tightening measure will gain us less and less.

So the bottom line, I think, is that conservation is not a panacea. It doesn't hurt, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that we "just need to get by on less." That's not going to cut it.