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Is the quest for cheaper, cleaner energy a flawed idea? Shouldn't we be focusing instead on energy efficiency?

Most unbiased scientists seem to agree the use of fossil fuels is having a profoundly damaging effect on the environment, not least because of greenhouse gases contributing to climate change. Imagine for a moment we find a cheaper, cleaner alternative - for example, we find a much more efficient way of turning solar power into electricity. What happens to this cheaper, cleaner energy? Much more of it gets used, to do whatever work we want it to do. Most work generates heat energy as a by-product. So instead of affecting the climate via the production of greenhouse gases, we would be affecting it directly by adding heat to the atmosphere. Just imagine the increased number of air-conditioners, and the increased hours of their use, with cheaper electricity. Lots more cooler homes = far more 'waste' heat being vented.

  • Mar 16 2011: Yes we should be focussing on energy efficiency, and plentiful cheap energy might be like cheap oil encouraging gas-guzzlers. With shortage, then efforts go into greater efficiency. Strongest focus on energy efficiency would happen if energy rationing were introduced - but that may be politically unpalatable even if phased over time and even though it needn't mean sacrificing lifestyle (e.g. low energy bulb can be substitute tungsten). Another approach might be introduction of minimum energy efficiency standards for various appliances - in similar way to how emission levels for cars were set. Requirements would then be imposed on the manufacturer rather than consumer.

    (It is not just generators that are inefficient - a great deal of electricity produced is lost in transmission over power lines - 10% or more can go in line loss).
  • Mar 4 2011: I was going to post something similar, but I stumbled upon your idea before I did. I've asked the same questions that you ask. I agree that waste heat is a potentially huge problem that I am frankly surprised is getting so little attention. In fact, it changes climate more obviously than greenhouse gases. Maybe not yet on a massive scale, but one cannot deny that heated microclimates are being created around populated areas like cities and industrial centres. You can't say that this has no effect on the big picture.

    Secondly, I think your efficiency idea is spot on. Most generators and transducers, of all types, are incredibly inefficient. There is so much energy being wasted through friction in mechanical devices like engines, infrared radiation (in light bulbs for example) and even the friction between a vehicle and air (where do you think all the energy in you momentum goes when you take your foot off the gas?) That's a lot of power being released willy-nilly into the environment. Who knows what will happen?

    Engineers, instead of focusing on hydrogen and electrical power, should work on making transducers more effective. People don't realize the extent of power hidden in the smallest amount of fossil fuels. It's just that it is mostly lost. I believe that we would actually have longer lasting energy by making use of fossil fuels' full potential, rather than using up the world's lithium supplies and greatest minds in developing electric cars while gasoline and nearly all of it's priceless energy is literally being left to burn away.