D. Dowd Muska


This Week's Column



Conservation’s War on Energy Reality

November 26, 2015

It’s a tough time for energy scolds.

Holiday travel, Christmas lights, furnaces cranked up, shoppers “wasting” fuel as they look for parking spaces at the mall -- it’s too much for carbon-footprint worriers to take.

This year, though, the conservation crowd needs an extra dose of sympathy. Energy use, which fell during and immediately after the Great Recession, is rebounding.

The return to urban living and revival of transit that moonbats have convinced themselves are underway? Wishful thinking. The suburbs began to make a comeback in 2013, scholar Joel Kotkin found, with young adults leading the march. Research by the Urban Land Institute revealed that “80 percent of current millennial homeowners live in single-family houses,” and 70 percent “of the entire generation expects to be living in one by 2020.”

Poring over the latest commuting figures from the Census Bureau, transportation researcher Wendell Cox concluded that little has “changed since 2010 despite all the talk about ‘peak car’ and a supposed massive shift towards transit.” The “only significant change” he found was a “reduction in carpooling.” Between 2010 and 2014, the travel mode fell to 8.8 percent from 9.8 percent in major metro regions.

Cheap gasoline makes driving alone more attractive. In a recent speech, NGP Energy Capital Management’s Ken Hersh uttered an unarguable insight about a culture enamored of mobility: “Americans were put on this earth to consume. Take a dollar off a gallon of gas, and we know what to do with it.” Even the liberal wonk-blog Vox has been forced to concede that the “forces in favor of more driving are currently stronger than the forces in favor of less.”

Gasoline demand hit a trough in 2012, but grew in both 2013 and 2014. Look for another increase in 2015. Automakers, The New York Times reported, had their “best October sales in a decade.” With the exception of Honda (8.6 percent), the seven manufacturers with the largest market shares experienced double-digit growth.

“So far this year,” wrote journalist Joshua Cain, “sales of light trucks have made up a little more than 56 percent of all vehicle sales in the U.S., their biggest share of the market in years.” In October, new-car fuel economy, as determined by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, “dropped for the third straight month and is … at its lowest point in any month this year.”

Still suffering from the Great Recession and a flirtation with a double-dip downturn in 2011, the nation’s net electricity production bottomed out in 2012. But predictably, the trend didn’t last. Juice generation rose in 2013, and did so again in 2014. Year to date, 2015 is beating 2014. Asked by Bloomberg about “the topic of efficiency steps that could reduce overall energy use,” Thomas Fanning, CEO of the Southern Company, replied, “I think that’s garbage. Energy efficiencies really don’t mean ‘Sell less.’”

A grim truth to face for “public servants” who fund conservation programs and mandate ever-higher efficiency standards. But most have never heard of William Stanley Jevons. The 19th century economist, as explained by physicist Herbert Inhaber, “investigated the use of coal -- the energy currency of the day -- in steam engines. He found that as engine efficiency increased, more coal was used, because it was now economical to use ever more engines.”

Peter W. Huber and Mark P. Mills, in their invaluable 2005 book The Bottomless Well, wrote, “Efficiency may curtail demand in the short term, for the specific task at hand. But its long-term impact is just the opposite. … Per unit of energy used, the United States produces more than twice as much GDP today as it did in 1950 -- and total energy consumption in the United States has also risen three-fold.”

The Pew Research Center offered this example of Jevonsism as it relates to housing: “U.S. homes have become considerably more energy-efficient over the past four decades, according to government data. But homes also are a lot bigger than they used to be, and their growing girth wipes out nearly all the efficiency gains.”

Silicon Valley is a major contributor to domiciles’ unquenchable energy thirst. It seems incredible, but computers weren’t in a majority of U.S. households until 2000. Times change. In a new analysis, Pew discovered that “66 percent of Americans own at least two digital devices -- smartphone, desktop or laptop computer, or tablet -- and 36 percent own all three.”

Even in an era of relentless bullying by greens, our country has a one-word approach to energy.


D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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