Barack’s “Energy Intensity”

Barack Obama is getting some legitimate praise about his new energy plans, such as the enthusiastic reception David Roberts has given it at Grist.  There are some great things in it, most notably that is is a CAP AND AUCTION plan when it comes to carbon emissions, not a Cap and Trade.  The resources would stay with the commons, with the society, to be used to help move toward a more sustainable energy future. That is, well, great. 

And, there are other strengths to Obama’s approach (fact sheet).

However, however, however …. there are things that aren’t so tremendous. For example, is a 35% reduction in oil use by 2030 meaningful (enough?) in the face of Peak Oil?  And, well others … But, this is a quick post about one particularly grating item … “energy intensity”.

Obama’s fact sheet has five summary bullets. The third one:

Dramatically improve energy efficiency to reduce energy intensity of our economy by 50 percent by 2030.

 Yes, let us “dramatically improve energy efficiency …” Absolutely. Got me on that. And, we will talk about whether Obama’s goals are dramatic enough at another time.

But, “reduce energy intensity” … What is this energy intensity, anyway? From Wikipedia

Energy intensity is a measure of the energy efficiency of a nation’s economy. It is calculated as units of energy per unit of GDP.

    • High energy intensities indicate a high price or cost of converting energy into GDP.
    • Low energy intensity indicates a lower price or cost of converting energy into GDP.

Okay, that seems straightforward.  High energy intensity seems to suggest an inefficient economy, when it comes to energy, and low energy intensity an efficient economy.  Thumbs up.  Great.  … Well, maybe not so great.

Now, one can improve “energy intensity” in multiple ways. The best: improve energy efficiency. And, well, the US economy has a tremendous amount of waste to wring out of it profitably via Negawatts.  For most Americans and most situations right now, it would be cheaper to go in and do energy efficiency than to figure out how to generate additional power. The easiest example: compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) that cut power requirements by about 73% and pay back for themselves in weeks or a few months.  Okay, energy efficiency. Again, YEAH!  Thumbs up.  Great. … 

But, energy intensity is a measure that can be tricked.

As an economy moves from industrial products to intellectual capital and services, even if the economic total value remains flat, by definition the energy intensity improves, as it takes less energy to create a monetary value. 

And, well, an economy that exports dirty, energy intensive manufacturing (as the US has outsourced so much industrial activity, to China and elsewhere), the energy intensity of the economy improves.

Energy Intensity is a dangerous and often misleading term.

There are lies … damned lies … statistics … and discussions o f energy intensity statistics.

I expect (and do) see Energy Intensity given prominance in Bush Administration speeches and statements. I was saddened to see it in Barack Obama’s speech as well.


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