Tech Won't Save Us. Shrinking Consumption Will

Two part article, currently on the fringe of “That which is thinkable,” pointing out the increasingly obvious fact that we’re unlikely to technology our way out of problems caused by our current branches of technology by doing more of that stuff which got us here. Also, that if something (exponential growth on a finite planet) can’t continue forever, it won’t. We just get to decide if we solve that early, or wait to hit the wall. My money’s on waiting to hit the wall, sadly…

But independently working to depower a bit and find lower energy ways to do things seems a wise path forward - if for no other reason than trying to get ahead of what’s likely to be a less reliable power grid in the future and more expensive energy.

One of my goals for next year (after I have the deck up) is to get some solar thermal collectors built for the house - window units that collect some heat and help route it into the house on sunny days. We may as well heat the house more if it’s clear and sunny, save the heat pump some cycles. Plus, if this energy is going into a heat pump water heater, it improves overall system efficiency as well. Our house takes a good bit of energy to keep warm in the winter, even though it’s well insulated.

Anyway, I expect to see more and more articles of this type being shouted down anywhere they’re posted, until they become the obvious future of things.

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Adaptation is always the answer. That, and pricing. Maybe a side of geoengineering.

I mean, we’ve baked in 1.5 degrees (c) of heat already. Even if every green fantasy is met, that’s still true. Every bit of coal from the industrial revolution on…

This is going to be a bunch of disruption. It’s baked in. More will happen without a coordinated global effort, but… lol. Good luck.

Now, if reduced consumption coincides with other goals (self sufficiency, reduced costs, etc) sure, reduce consumption. But it’s a means, not the overall ends.


No matter what you’re trying to do, reduced energy consumption makes it easier. Bend the curve down, go negative, whatever. A reduction in consumption, and especially the sort of iterative, pointless, disposable consumption that makes up the modern world, gains you an awful lot. And not just on carbon - it’s less plastics, less mining, less mountains removed to get at the goodies inside.

The problem with geoengineering is that it’s the sort of thing that tends to require indefinite, ongoing investment to sustain. That’s far from a given as we tumble down the backside of our arc through history, and if the solution is “Keep doing what we’re doing and geo-engineer solutions,” then when those solutions stop, the kickback will be quite powerful.

Though I agree that we’re unlikely to do much about it, so adaptation is useful.

However, even within that, to borrow a Greer-ism, “Collapse early and avoid the rush” is useful - if you can get ahead of the reduction in energy and material resources that’s coming down the pipeline at frightful speed, you can make sure you’ve got some spare resources to do something useful instead of trying to maintain an impossible lifestyle even longer.

And perhaps convince some other people to join you in the lower energy corners of lifestyles. :slight_smile:


Here in CA (in PG&E territory) you can buy LED light bulbs for $1 in select locations. It’s cheaper for PG&E to subsidize LED bulbs than build a new generator to power incandescent bulbs. People complain about CA’s Title 24 lighting efficiency standards, but finally after all these years this sort of control is no longer expensive; you can get most LED bulbs (non subsidized) for less than $10 each (used to be like $20!). Ditto for water efficiency (which also takes an enormous amount of electricity). IMHO we need to stop subsidizing things like gasoline and let them reflect their actual costs. It’s easier to direct people to do the right thing when you lead them by the pocketbook.

How’s that “Negawatts” thing work out during peak demand when PG&E just throws up their hands and goes with rolling blackouts instead of “actually producing power”?

One of the problems I think we’ll see with the “investor owned” vs “public” utilities is that the increased penetration of renewables will reduce the utilization of various generation plants - and that reduces profits from them, which is more of an issue for an investor power company than a public, cost recovery one. If you need a GW of natural gas turbines laying around and maintained for use a couple times a year, they’re expensive, but that’s not really a problem unless you’re looking to turn a profit on them. If you’re investor owned, well, bulldoze them, take them off the books, and suffer a few “extreme pricing” profit events a year, laugh to the bank (see Texas). Not useful if you want reliable power, sadly.

Low Tech Magazine has raised the valid point that the more reliable the power grid is, the more reliable it has to be to meet needs. If you have a 95% reliable power grid, you probably don’t rely on it for everything. If you have a 99.9% reliable power grid, that 0.1% is really disruptive.

The problem is that shrinking consumption substantially is hard. Not just at a home level (there’s often not a lot you can do to an existing structure, though “wrap it with a whole layer of insulation around the outside” gains a lot), but at a consumer consumption level. And I’m certainly guilty of plenty of tech gizmos. Reducing consumption in the spring/summer/fall is fine, winter is just rough. Though a wood stove and saving my junk mail to make paper bricks would go a long way there.

Heh seeing as the spouse works for the utility commission…

Yes, sometimes (incandescent > LED definitely but the end user might have an issue, ex - over the holidays replaced a bunch of the in-laws incandescents on dimmers with LEDs… all except one which flickered no matter what combination I tried. Ended up going back to incandescents on those.

Rarely used room unless we’re over, anyway, and I’m not going to redo the whole fixture in their house.

Except when it stops working. ‘Meets standards’ … if it doesn’t flush it down, I’m gonna keep flushing until it does. The ‘#1/#2’ switch (swappable in existing toilets) and pressure toilets are better than ‘high efficiency’ ones. Ditto for showers. Doesn’t matter if it uses half the water if I’m taking 2x as long a shower to get the damned soap off.

Yes, I’ll agree there … though ‘right’ is a weird answer. Maybe I want to use 2x water but get done in half the time. I can afford it. Maybe the cost to replace the fixture to support the LEDs is more than the occasional use of that room.

Never mind the perfectly good bulbs you’re going to throw away.

As long as you’re not wedded to the ‘carbon iz bad’ and look at ‘least use’ vs no use solutions… it’s a lot easier.

Oh, for sure. Less resource use is a great tool, but it’s just a tool. A means, not an end to itself. I think ‘it costs less’ is a great common ground for folks regardless of their backgrounds.

I’d rather have the best of both worlds - hobby/camping trials the ‘rough it’ bits, while keeping somewhat modern systems. I mean, yes, I acknowledge the contingency exists and needs planning, but there’s a market dynamic too - excess avoidance now doesn’t do /me/ any good. Not when your dollar’s going to be worth less, and it’s not like the resources you didn’t use ‘stay’… someone else just gets them at a slightly lower cost because of the lower demand.

I don’t disagree at all, but I think that it’ll come down to it. Maybe it needs a separate thread and/or long term tracking discussion. Some venues refuse to acknowledge the idea that we can do some mitigation (albedo/ SO2, etc) at all.

After the Texas debacle, I’m surprised the PUC hasn’t put caps on $/kWh. It’s ridiculous that it’s uncapped. At one point I recall that California’s spot market price was somewhat artificially capped at $999/MWh, simply because the billing system was limited to 3 digits. No idea if that’s still the case; it was probably 10 yrs ago.

I’m fairly certain it was capped - wasn’t the cap something like $9000/MWh, based on some studies showing that the cost to society of having the power grid down was somewhere in that range?

The problem wasn’t the cap or lack thereof. The problem was that the assumption baked into the system was, “There will be enough power to meet demand, at some price.” What broke down was that there was not enough power to meet demand at any price. Break the assumptions built into the system, and the system tends to break.

Also, most of the people paying insane utility bills were on Griddy without understanding the details. Griddy is the sort of thing that appeals to people like me, who also happen to have large backup generators they can interconnect into their system (legal or not, at $9/kWh, if you can do it safely, it’s worth the risk). With something like what I wanted to build initially for solar (100kWh of lead, separate generator/charging inlet that can mix with solar), I could have paid for a few years power in the few days running, which was the goal of the pricing structure. Unfortunately, if I think some pricing system for power is amazing, it probably means it shouldn’t be offered to the general public without some sort of accredited investor type of paperwork.

…shouldn’t be offered to the general public without…

+100. I frequently describe my job as answering the stupid question of “What could possibly go wrong?”… oh, let me count the ways!

I wonder if there’s some strategy to decouple the set of folks who want cheaper power without wanting to think about the details too much from the entity that owns the grid itself and has perverse incentives regarding optimizing the p99 price/MWh and p99.99 availability.

Just spitballing here, but maybe some sort of insurance-style collective that is big enough to maintain the just-in-time generating capacity to provide some insulation against the effects of those shortfalls and peak-price events…?

Isn’t that “Most of the power companies in Texas”? They charge more-than-spot for power, in exchange for limiting the peak that you’re going to have to pay. I think a bunch went bankrupt, though.

The primary problem is just that things break at the limit. “X can’t happen” designed systems, followed by “X is happening for half a week,” tend to break weirdly.

But your splitting consumers and power companies is pretty much what Texas does. There’s the grid owner, which sets pricing, the power generators, which bid into the system hourly and provide power, and then the various power companies which interact with all the consumers and bill according to whatever their “thing” is. Fixed price, variable price, passing rates through, whatever. It’s not a half bad system in concept, just, failed at the limit. Again.

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