Selected category: Technology

Biking and Renewables

Illustration by Kelsey King/Ensia

Illustration by Kelsey King/Ensia

There’s nothing quite like biking down clogged city streets, weaving in and out of traffic. For short distances, it’s faster than driving. It’s liberating. It’s fun.

It also makes it painfully clear that most roads aren’t made for bikes. Make one mistake, and you might end up dead. If you do everything right and the 4,000-pounder next to you makes a mistake, you still might end up dead. Few regular urban cyclists remain entirely unharmed throughout the years: A broken bone (“cut off by a van”), a scraped shin (“car door”), or perhaps simply drenched on an otherwise dry road (“I avoided the mud puddle; the car didn’t”).

Blame it on my day job, but as I was cut off by yet another driver fixated on his phone while cycling to work, I got to thinking that this is how wind and solar electrons must feel as they try to navigate the electric grid. There, too, the infrastructure and rules were designed for the conventional, fossil fuel-based generators, not their smaller, greener counterparts.

We need to get off gasoline-powered vehicles, the same way we need to get off fossil-powered electricity. Biking alone, of course, can’t eliminate fossil fuel-based transportation. It’s a niche alternative that chiefly works in densely populated cities filled with environmentally concerned citizens. What works in Berkeley, Boulder, Brooklyn and Boston won’t work everywhere. Neither can trains, by the way, another favorite of environmentalists. Most U.S. cities have a lot of catching up to do with their European counterparts, but, if anything, it will be electric vehicles that will truly help us make this transition.

Similarly, wind and solar can’t singlehandedly eliminate fossil fuel-based electrical generation. They have great potential, much more so than biking ever will. But there, too, are limitations — chiefly the (eventual) need for storage to eliminate all fossil fuel-based generation: coal, petroleum and natural gas.

Meanwhile, there are great benefits to pushing both green technologies. Biking helps get previously sedentary drivers to move, which, in turn, extends their lives and decreases societal health care costs, assuming injuries can be avoided by appropriate bike infrastructure. Every dollar invested in that infrastructure can pay for itself many times over.

Something similar holds for subsidizing infrastructure for renewables (and, for that matter, some energy efficiency measures). The reduction in the large and risky global warming externality typically offsets the costs of subsidies and other sensible policy interventions. Many of the right policies are indeed being put in place.

Still, some traditional utilities continue to fight the integration of rooftop solar and other renewables, the way New York City did with bikes in 1987 when it tried to ban them altogether from midtown Manhattan. Today, New York is decidedly friendlier to cyclists, with Mayor Michael Bloomberg adding over 300 miles of bike lanes to city streets, and a popular, still-expanding bike share program. Renewables, for their part, are increasingly welcomed onto the grid, with increased open access and grid management tools aimed at integrating intermittent renewable energy sources. Much more needs to be done.

Getting the Job Done

There’s one more parallel that might well dwarf all else: Biking for biking’s sake is fun on a sunny Sunday afternoon. On a Monday morning, when it’s about getting to a meeting on time and looking professional, transport choice comes down to getting there reliably, quickly, cheaply and without sweat stains.

Electricity is no different. Solar panels may be an interesting, even fun, choice for some. The feeling of energy independence and doing good is a bonus. But many times, it doesn’t matter where electrons come from, just that they do — reliably, cheaply and cleanly.

The ideal policy solution for energy is as clear as it is seemingly difficult to implement: Pay the full, appropriate price for electricity at the right time and place, including currently unpriced environmental costs. Once every electron comes with the appropriate price tag, the solar panel on your roof — or the solar farm down the road — may well carry the day. Or it might not. That’s OK, too. Having the right energy mix matters more than any one technology. The energy system is a system, after all.

Biking, too, is but one form of getting around. Appropriate gas taxes, congestion charges and parking fees help incorporate the full costs of gasoline-powered engines and encourage more alternative modes of transport — from electric vehicles to public transport and bikes. Meanwhile, outright subsidizing those alternative modes is surely the right step. Pushing those alternatives at scale is as sensible as pushing renewables, especially when it also means moving closer to the ideal pricing policies in the first place.

But pushing biking or any one form of alternative transport is no end goal in itself. At the end of the day, it’s about getting from A to B. That means — as it does for energy — getting the entire system right.View Ensia homepage

Published on on October 1st, 2015.

Also posted in Energy efficiency| Leave a comment

Reconsidering the Rebound Effect

By Kenneth Gillingham, David Rapson, and Gernot Wagner.

The Rebound Effect and Energy Efficiency PolicyThe rebound effect from improving energy efficiency has been widely discussed—from the pages of the New York Times and New Yorker to the halls of policy and to a voluminous academic literature. It’s been known for over a century and, on the surface, is simple to understand. Buy a more fuel-efficient car, drive more. Invent a more efficient bulb, use more light. If efficiency improves, the price of energy services will drop, inducing increased demand for those services. Consumers will respond, producers will respond, and markets will re-equilibrate. All of these responses can lead to reductions in the energy savings expected from improved energy efficiency. And so some question the overall value of energy efficiency, by arguing that it will only lead to more energy use—a case often called "backfire."

In a new RFF discussion paper, "The Rebound Effect and Energy Efficiency Policy" we review the literature on the rebound effect, classify the different types, and highlight the need for careful distinction between causal links—which are indeed worthy of the “rebound” label—and mere correlations, which are not. We find, in fact, that measures to improve efficiency, despite potential rebound effects—are likely to improve welfare, generally.

Among the key questions about the rebound effect are a) whether the net benefits of energy efficiency increases are positive (for a costless improvement, the answer is almost certainly "yes"), and b) whether the increase in demand for energy services uses so much additional energy that it leads to greater, rather than less, demand for energy itself (the answer is almost certainly "no").

Our findings are clear: while it is possible for rebound effects to be large in some settings, there is no reliable evidence supporting rebound effects so large that improving energy efficiency leads to more energy use. Backfire is theoretically possible, but even the theoretical predictions rely on channels that are either a) second-order in magnitude (and thus unlikely to overwhelm primary effects), or b) lacking in empirical evidence of their existence and magnitude. Globally, we have little reason to worry about backfire. While there is much uncertainty about the size of the so-called "macroeconomic rebound" (how re-equilibration of markets and such hypothesized effects as induced innovation from the energy efficiency improvement may lead to a rebound), we consider a plausible upper bound of the total effect to be in the range of 60 percent (that is, 60 percent of the potential energy savings will be lost to rebound), with most studies pointing to a smaller effect.

Regardless of its size, we find that the rebound effect is very likely to be welfare-improving. In fact, in the extreme, energy efficiency improvements that come about from innovations or otherwise have no cost are unequivocally welfare-enhancing. If the improvements come with costs, such as air pollution from more driving or more expensive technology, those need to be weighed against the energy savings, emissions savings, and welfare benefits from the policy.

In short, undue emphasis on backfire is a mere distraction. Or as we put it in a recent letter to the editor of the New York Times: energy efficiency improvements such as "LEDs alone won’t solve global warming or global poverty, but they are a step in the right direction for both."

Published on Common Resources. The RFF Discussion Paper is here: "The Rebound Effect and Energy Efficiency Policy."

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The Silver Bullet Of Climate Change Policy


By Bob Litterman and Gernot Wagner

Whenever the conversation turns to climate change, someone is sure to opine that there’s no silver bullet. The issue is simply too complex to have one solution. When you focus on all the changes that need to occur to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally it seems like a multifaceted approach is the only way forward.

Most of the world’s vexing problems share that feature. Mideast peace, nuclear non-proliferation, Eurozone stability, and plenty of other national security problems have no single right plan of attack. Some past plans might have brought us tantalizingly close to a seeming solution, but then reality started interfering once again, reconfirming the complexity of it all.

Climate change must surely be in that category. No single country, no single technology, no single approach can seemingly solve this one for us once and for all. Picking a single technology will almost inevitably end in some form of disappointment. Bureaucrats, the saying goes, ought not to try to pick winners. Leave that to venture capitalists for whom failure is a way of life. For every Apple and Facebook, there are dozens who never make it out of the garage. And clean technology doesn’t yet even have a single Apple and Facebook as the standout approach revolutionizing the field.

It turns out, though, that how you frame the issue is crucial. If you think like an engineer there are dozens of challenges. If you think like an economist, there is one. It’s guiding the ‘invisible hand’. How can you create the appropriate incentive to decrease the pollution that’s causing climate change? For that, the government need not be in the business of picking winners at all. What it should—and can—do is identify the loser that’s been clear for decades: greenhouse gas pollution. And the solution is equally clear: create incentives to reduce emissions by pricing it. If we make this one change, most other actions that are needed will follow.

That’s what the European Union has done by capping carbon emissions from its energy sector, including large industrials, covering almost half of total carbon emissions. That’s what California is doing with over 80 percent of its total global warming emissions. It’s what China is experimenting with in seven city and regional trials, including in Beijing and Shanghai. All these systems put a price on greenhouse gas pollution.

On the other side of the ledger, there are still much larger incentives to consume fossil fuels in many other countries. The International Energy Agency estimates that global subsidies are well over $500 billion. These subsidies, which incentivize emissions, sadly dwarf the paltry incentives to reduce them. Free marketeers, small government advocates, and others who dislike distorting government subsidies should be appalled at the tax money poured into fossil fuels.

There’s one simple principle that’s been around in economics for so long that no economist worth his or her degree would question the conclusion: increase the price, watch the quantity demanded go down. It’s such a universal truism that economists call it the “Law of Demand.” Generations of graduate students have estimated the effects of price on demand for anything from the generic widget to demand for car miles driven. People may be irrational at times, but one thing that we know for sure is that they respond to incentives.

Everything we know from decades of the study of human behavior would lead us to believe that carbon pollution will go down as the price on emissions increases. The only interesting question is by how much.

The prescription then for anyone seriously concerned about climate change is simple: price carbon to the point where its now unpriced damages are incorporated into the price, and get out of the way. It’s simple. It works. It’s conservative to the core.

It’s also a silver bullet solution if there ever was one.

Bob Litterman is a Partner at Kepos Capital, LP. Gernot Wagner is a senior economist at the Environmental Defense Fund.

Also posted in Cap and Trade, Politics| Leave a comment

Newsflash: Clean Air Act saves lives, boosts GDP

We have sometimes been the bearers of bad news on jobs in the past. Not bad news, really. Realistic news. So excuse me for being a bit giddy at the sight of the latest piece of very realistic—and very good—news.

The EPA just released a new White Paper that turns out to be as green as it is red, white, and blue.

Lives and health at a bargain price

First, it starts with what really matters when considering the impact of the Clean Air Act—health and the corresponding social and economic benefits:

  • 18 million child respiratory illnesses prevented in 1990 alone,
  • 200,000 lives saved that year (160,000 in 2010),
  • total benefits outpacing costs 30:1 since 1990.

These are the key figures we need to keep in mind. Always.

Healthy kids means a healthy workforce

For anyone who isn't yet satisfied but worries about the economic impact of the Clean Air Act, there's more good news:

Protecting children from neurotoxins leads to workers with higher IQs.

That should be an obvious statement. It also turns out to come with real economic benefits. The latest study by Harvard's Dale Jorgenson et al shows that the Clean Air Act has boosted productivity and growth:

GDP in 2010 is 1.5 percent higher than it would have been without the Clean Air Act.

Again, that's GDP. Hard economic growth. The number that measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile.

Clean and competitive

Lastly, the paper concludes with a look at competitiveness concerns. The verdict: the Clean Air Act does not harm competitiveness.

That's not as strong as saying that the Clean Air Act improves U.S. competitiveness. Improving productivity also improves competitiveness, and combining the standard competitiveness arguments with Jorgenson's productivity results may well show that to be the case.

But no one to my knowledge has done that yet credibly. (Of course, I'd love to be proven wrong on that point.) To the full credit of EPA and the credibility of its analysis, the paper does not go that far either.

The White Paper stays well within the mainstream of economic analysis of the Clean Air Act and bears plenty of good news for health, wealth, and the planet.

Read it at your own peril. It may well be the first piece of economic analysis that makes you giddy yourself.

Also posted in Markets 101, Politics| Leave a comment

The long and the short of energy efficiency

David Owen asks a provocative question in the current New YorkerIf our machines use less energy, will we just use them more? He more or less says yes. The real answer comes in two parts.

For now—over days, weeks, months, and even years—energy efficiency will decrease energy use and emissions. Screw a compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulb into a socket that used to hold an incandescent and your energy use will go down. Chances are you won't leave the lights on four times as long just because light now costs a quarter.

Over time—years, decades, centuries, and millennia—more energy efficient lights and appliances will indeed mean that more people use more of them. CFLs make light more affordable. That doesn't matter to the typical U.S. household, where few light sockets remain unused because of energy costs. But globally—and over time—it does make a difference.

The Jevons Paradox

William Stanley JevonsOwen goes back to 1865 and William Stanley Jevons who at 28 came up with what has later been called the "Jevons Paradox":

It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.

Jevons is right, of course. We have seen dramatic increases in energy efficiency over centuries while energy use has gone up by orders of magnitude.

Does that mean we shouldn't increase energy efficiency? Of course not. We just need to be clear about what we are getting in exchange.

Energy over the millennia

Sperm WhaleBy the mid-1800s, the latest and greatest in lighting technology was spermaceti, a fat from the head of sperm whales. It cost around $1,500 a barrel in today's dollars and its price was only going to go up as whales became ever scarcer. Since then, we have seen gas lights come and go and by now electric lights cost less than a thousandth as much as the equivalent in lighting power back then.

That's not a recent phenomenon. Bill Nordhaus went back to 500,000 BC. Lighting cost a million times [PDF] as much then as it does today. Needless to say, we are using much more of it now.

Another word for this phenomenon is “technological progress.” That’s really what’s behind the whale oil story, and we want more of it. There is still plenty of energy poverty [PDF] in the world. We clearly want affordable, clean energy for as many people as possible.

Of course, misguided “progress” has also led us to a planet on the brink of breakage. We need to limit greenhouse gas emissions—and do so sooner rather than later.

Will energy efficiency save the climate?

Should we look to energy efficiency as a way to do some of that? Absolutely. Energy efficiency is cheap, quick, clean, and often underutilized.

McKinsey has looked for zero-cost energy efficiency opportunities in the United States and has found possible savings of above 20 percent of total demand in 2020.  Those savings, could go a long way toward meeting commonly discussed climate policy goals.

But won’t those energy savings just mean that we are using more energy eventually? History has shown it to be true after all.

In the short run—over days, weeks, months, and even years—the Jevons Paradox manifests itself in a well-documented “rebound effect” of around 10 percent. On average, you would indeed leave your CFL on for a bit longer than you would an incandescent. We lose a tenth of energy savings to increased use. (Owen cites the 10 percent figure but then goes on to overstate some of the implications dramatically.)

That leaves 90 percent in true savings and points to the clear win-win potential of energy efficiency measures.

Not by energy efficiency alone

In the long run—over years, decades, centuries, and millennia—cleaner and cheaper energy also means more people will be using more of it.

Does that mean energy efficiency is bad? Of course not. Energy inefficiency is another term for waste. And we clearly want less of that. But the problems our planet faces are too large to address through waste reduction (“reduce, reuse, recycle”) alone.

To get emissions down in the long run, there’s no escaping the (gasp) inconvenient truth that we must limit pollution directly—ideally though a declining cap on total emissions.

A cap on emissions—and the ensuing price on carbon pollution and race to invent cleaner energy sources—is the only mechanism we know that can break the link between emissions and energy use.  It limits the former and makes clean energy cheaper relative to fossil fuels.

Also posted in Markets 101| Leave a comment

There They Go Again, Part Two: Mercury

Sometimes cap and trade isn't the best solution. Call me a purist, but I want my kid's amniotic fluid to be toxin-free. In the case of mercury, direct regulation is the best way to go.

It also shows that carbon can have some good uses after all. Activated Carbon Injection can reduce mercury pollution from power plants by 90 percent. It's clean(er), readily available, already deployed large scale, and affordable. Now it's up to EPA to set the proper rules.

Steve Cochran tells the full story. Second in a series.

Also posted in Politics| Leave a comment
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