Abundant Clean Energy

by Matthew Formby

While total and per Capita energy use are clearly related, and for obvious reasons, recently the ratio of growth has flipped. Energy use per person is decreasing significantly while national energy use is only making modest changes in its trend.
Even more recently than the change in 2.2, growth in total energy consumption has gone below population growth. Graphs 2.2 and 2.3 indicate important shifts in energy growth, likely the result of efforts to reduce carbon emissions / environmental impact of energy usage beyond historic measures. 
Differences in 2.2 and 2.3 also illustrate a key, underlying principle: Since population steadily increases without any sign of decreasing, national reductions in per-person energy use only deter growth in total national energy use (though smaller gains in energy conservation are multiplied by larger populations) without stopping growth. Most significantly these elucidate the main limit of energy conservation: total energy use will inevitably grow unless we actually stop using energy (impossible with modern lifestyle and medicine). As such the need for renewable and long-term clean energy is already great before even thinking about the environment. But the cost of many fully renewable plans, which involve expensively changing the grid, will have a similar, unintended consequences on modern lifestyles and health.
The correlation between energy and income in chained 2009 dollars is weak, and yet when historic income is converted to gold in grams, the relation is more noticeable (Graphs 6.1)
Annual residential expenses on energy per person were multiplied by average number of persons per household (1) before being divided by household income. (U.S. Census Bureau: State and County QuickFacts.
http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/00000.html 10/22/2015
)
Income in gold is calculated as a function of median income (without any other inflation adjustments) and the number of grams of gold that could be purchased at historic gold prices during that year.
There is a noticeable correlation between (gold) income and energy use since 1949, but the relationship seems to be even more distinct in the years after 1968. At times changes in income follow, or are followed by, changes in energy use. The proportions of their relationship change over time, but what remains constant is that changes in one see similar changes in the other.

Stable and cheap energy, having become necessary for almost all our daily amenities and modern medical care, is essential to maintaining a modern lifestyle. This study looks into the relationship between energy use and different aspects of quality of life--chiefly economic impact and air pollution related causes of death. In the United States household income is used as an indicator of quality of life; while worldwide and in developing economies illnesses, causes of death, and national economic impacts are likewise observed. Efforts to stop climate change have led all nations to consider the carbon impact of their energy balance and policies that can shape this balance now and in the future. At times, these policies include taxes that apply a directly increased cost on energy for consumers and producers. While it's an invaluable goal to achieve a renewable and sustainable energy balance, expensive reductions in carbon emissions may be causing unexpected problems for individuals in both the developed and developing world.

"Every advanced economy has required secure access to modern energy to underpin its development and growing prosperity. Modern, high quality and reliable energy provides services such as lighting, heating, transport, communication and mechanical power that support education, better health, higher incomes and all-round improvements in the quality of life." International Energy Agency, African Energy Outlook(4).

It has been said before that expensive efforts to reduce carbon emissions in the developed world can set a good example, but won't do more than that if affordable reductions cannot be implemented in the developing world (Muller 2012)(3). These expensive efforts are why even though between 2005 and 2015 annual residential energy use per person dropped noticeably (13.7 to 12.6 Megawatt-hours) the percentage of household disposable income spent on energy has gone up from 2.5% to 2.9% in the same time (see graphs 2.4 and 5.2). Meanwhile though individuals have been using less energy each year, energy use overall is barely staying the same. Ironically, the problem of rising expenses (despite our best efforts to turn off the lights we don't use) could be caused by the solution to another, bigger problem. For the sake of the environment or energy independence, policy makers have been investing in and subsidizing the expenses of renewable energy. This is a good thing, but investments have to come from somewhere. While some clean renewables show reasonable signs of growth and success (Solar Photovoltaic for example), the subsidized viability of others (for example Solar Thermal) have little long term viability and in the mean time create a less competitive energy market. While they see fruition in the growth of wind and solar capacity, growth is slow while renewables remain expensive (and will over the next 35 years)(1).

Developing nations which hope to make a strong stand against pollution and climate change, like India, are particularly disadvantaged by the higher cost of renewable investments. Directly or indirectly, measures meant to encourage green energy (whether it's a carbon tax or renewable subsidy) increase the cost of energy for the end user--changing how available energy is in the area. Unexpectedly, while nations take longer to set up an expensive, renewable, clean energy grid, families aren't just left in the dark for some time. The difference between having and not having affordable access to electricity is often the difference between clean air and residual household pollution. Those most affected lack reliable (or any) power, leaving basic necessities like heating and cooking to be filled by burning solid bio fuels at home (the very same fuels that we wanted so much to avoid). The resulting home pollution and health risks have been estimated to cause over four million premature deaths each year (WHO 2014, Household Air Pollution)(2)

Even in more developed nations, stable and cheap energy has and will continue to be essential to economic development and quality of life. Large data and technology driven industries rely on and can be deeply affected by how expensive energy is, shaping national and regional economies. Some state economies rely on energy industries like hydrofracking, while for others even the price of grain has become closely tied to energy prices since ethanol became more used. Additionally small businesses are becoming more technology and power driven, whether it's an independent app developer or an artist trying to reach customers worldwide. The world economy is more dependent on stable and cheap energy than ever, and as a result small increases in energy expenses may not seem devastating but can have surprising impacts on families. To take these issues on, we need to consider technologies like nuclear power which have not had new facilities built in decades, despite constant advancements.

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