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Jevons paradox is alive, well and in my local DIY store

Image: CARB

Easter in the UK marks the start of the gardening season for the mass of the population (hardened gardeners never stopped).  The long weekend provides many working people with their first holiday since Christmas.  And with spring in the air, even the most reluctant of us are persuaded to get around to doing all of those garden and household chores that we’ve been putting off.

Fortunately, DIY – at least the amateur version – is nothing like the laborious task that it once was.  Where my grandparents made do with hand tools, we can zip through a job in a matter of minutes using a range “power tools.”  So I was not surprised to find a promotional booklet from my local DIY store on my door mat this morning urging me in a banner headline to “start your Easter projects.”  Because DIY requires heavy lifting, the booklet encourages its readers to take advantage of the “Power Tools Clearance.”

Nowadays I refuse to take part in anything that calls itself a “project,” so I am not about to rush out and add to the global environmental crisis by purchasing tools that I don’t need (even if my refusal to buy adds to the retail apocalypse).  But something interesting did catch my eye in the booklet.  This was that almost all of the power tools in the booklet were battery-powered.  Of particular interest was a range of, “cordless one-battery tools built with reliable, tough engineering – giving brilliant performance at a great price.”  These included a powerful mower as well as grass, weed and hedge trimmers.

Anyone who buys a battery-powered mower – at a cost of £398 – is probably not too worried about energy efficiency.  But because energy is lost whenever it is converted, assuming the motor is the same, the battery-powered machine must use more electricity than the one that plugs into a socket.  It also struck me that since batteries lose efficiency over time, the plug-in mower would save even more energy in the long run.  This, however, is a trivial issue compared to the bombshell that the very existence of a battery-powered lawn mower just delivered.

In England in the 1850s, it was commonly believed that a series of improvements to steam technology would begin to wean the industrial economy off its addiction to coal.  However, in a book called The Coal Question published in 1859, economist William Stanley Jevons poured cold water on this belief in technological progress.  Far from weaning people off coal, improvements in the energy efficiency of steam technology had led to both the technologies and the fuel becoming cheaper.  Instead of fewer people turning to coal, even more people had adopted steam technologies; driving demand for coal even higher.

A similar thing happened in the 1990s with internal combustion engine cars.  Improved engines, better fuel chemistry, aerodynamics, suspension systems and tyre technology all came together to make cars far more fuel efficient than the bone-shaking gas-guzzlers of the 1960s and 70s.  As with their counterparts in the 1850s, many people believed that improved fuel efficiency would lead to a peak in demand for petrol and diesel.  Instead, households used the money they saved to travel further and even to purchase additional cars.

In the years since vehicle fuel efficiency failed to curb our insatiable appetite for petrol and diesel, lithium ion battery technology has been sold to us as the unicorn that will finally deliver us from the environmental hell that awaits us if we continue to burn fossil fuels.  So the theory goes, as the battery technology becomes more efficient, so we can build a new generation of electric cars that can compete with the current internal combustion engine vehicles.  This will rapidly result in “peak oil demand” as we no longer need the climate-destroying fuels peddled by the oil industry.  In addition, the same batteries – deployed at a large scale – will iron out the peaks and troughs of renewable energy generation, allowing us to end our use of fossil fuels in electricity generation too.

The problem – common to all “solutions” at this stage – is that the planet’s resources have been severely depleted as a result of the economic growth that we have engaged in since the Industrial Revolution and especially in the decades after World War Two.  Because we have consumed our way through the resources beginning with the cheapest and easiest, the remaining resources are expensive and increasingly difficult to obtain.  Not that we are about to “run out” of (in the short-term) anything at today’s rate of consumption.  But at today’s rate of consumption electric cars are less than five percent of the global car fleet; so we would need a 200 percent increase in the production of these cars to meet our zero-carbon fuels aim.  This is a problem because, for example, even at half that – the increase agreed by the European Union between now and 2030 – we would only have enough cobalt – an essential component of lithium ion batteries – for eight months!  Lithium itself would last a bit longer (just short of five years) but by then we would be out of several key metals that would make further car production impossible anyway.

No doubt as resources become increasingly difficult to extract, a degree of recycling will become viable.  But – and it’s a big but – most recycling involves large volumes of cheap materials rather than the relatively small quantities of expensive materials that we are going to be running short of.  The energy and costs involved in recycling these mean that recycling will never become a viable way of overcoming the shortages once the earth’s crust has depleted (there’s gold in your old computer – but it’ll cost you more to recycle it than anyone will pay you for it).

All of which brings me back to William Stanley Jevons and the battery-powered lawn mower in my local DIY store.  As fast as the energy density of batteries has increased, so firms have found new applications for them.  Predictably, greater efficiency has created even greater demand; causing us to use up the remaining resources even faster. The increased demand, furthermore, requires that we do not just have to replace the energy we get from fossil fuels with wind turbines and solar panels, but that we must set even more ambitious (and wholly unrealistic) targets to produce even more energy with these non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies than we currently get from fossil fuels.  And that is yet another headache for anyone who thinks that wind, sunlight and batteries are going to sustain business as usual in the face of our deepening global human impact crisis.

As you made it to the end…

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