Comments by John Wilson Subscribe

On Are Rebound Effects a Problem for Energy Efficiency?

Its great to see that the Breakthrough Institute and friends have moderated their messaging. It was a real shame when certain findings were extrapolated to suggest that energy efficiency does not save energy. This more nuanced and thoughtful discussion is a real contribution to sound work. But I wouldn't put all the blame on the New York Times for the headline, they probably just looked back at some of BTI's original messaging on this subject.

October 16, 2014    View Comment    

On Free Market Perspective Dominates The Climate Policy Debate

Mr. Handley, Thanks for pointing out the typo with Professor Mankiw's name, which I've corrected. I'm not sure how that crept in during the editorial process ... John Wilson

Note to readers, some of the links in this post will become active later this week.

November 15, 2011    View Comment    

On Today's Energy Panacea: Biochar!

Aside from the snarky headline, great piece. I bought a pickup truckload of "off spec" biochar (perfectly fine but not suitable for research needs) a few years ago. It transformed me from a no-talent gardener to a green magician. (Don't take me too literally here but pretty much.) Then we moved and left it behind, of course. The new homeowners are also growing food like nothin' doing. I don't know whether they had any talent to start with. Scaling this up is a challenge because more from a financial view than a technical view because the concept is so radically different than fertilizer.

June 29, 2011    View Comment    

On Why The Southeast Needs To Catch Up On Energy Efficiency

@Dude & @Amelia

Thanks for your comments. However, I would like to correct one misperception about the intent of my post. The data I offered here reflect the intent of utilities and their regulators in the Southeast, not the willingness of customers to participate in those programs.

I am unaware of any data that suggests southerners are less willing to participate in energy efficiency programs than people in other regions of the country.

I do think that beliefs and skepticism about change affect utility managers and their regulators in the south, but I would not agree that that small group of people (numbering in the hundreds) reflects the general attitudes of "regular" people in the south. Utility managers and their regulators are different because they think about energy a lot more than the average person, and that makes a huge difference in how they approach these issues.

I'm not quite ready to offer up a blog on what these groups (managers/regulators and general public) think about energy and how it affects energy efficiency programs in the southeast. But I am thinking about it!

June 28, 2011    View Comment    

On A new denier myth is born, this time for energy efficiency

@John Fleck:

Well, it wasn't my intent to offer a complete "critique" here in great depth. While I did explain some of the reasons that I think this argument is overstated, the main purpose of my post was to point out how the overly broad and sensationalist framing of the research findings actually undermines the discussion that The Breakthrough Institute would like to foster.

One of the strengths of the scientific research regarding climate change is how robust it is - many different disciplines all investigating the same physical phenomena but in very different ways. The strength of the case is made by the robustness of the overall picture. Unconvinced by sea level rise? Then there's patterns of ecological stress suggested by greater threats of extinction, etc.

In contrast, BTI is pushing a counter-intuitive and sensational finding - that "energy efficiency" does not lead to a reduction in energy efficiency. Dig a little deeper and you find that the underlying analysis has to do with an economic paradigm that places technology shifts at the heart of the analysis.

This analysis is simply asserted to be superior to the other methods of answering the same questions, without really putting forward any explanation of why that might be the case. I may be slightly oversimplifying here, but my point is that there is a lot of evidence that energy efficiency programs do lead to energy savings over a period of time, and that reduces energy use over a period of time.

Where I think that the authors have a point is that in the long run (e.g., the equivalent of a climate model being run for centuries), technology change does not drive fundamental shifts in how society allocates resources to energy. I'm not completely convinced by their evidence as to the magnitude of this effect, but I think there is a point here.

But coming back around to the point of my post, it is that the sensationalist framing of this finding feeds the "denier" myth machine with yet another meme that bears little resemblence to what the research community actually considers correct. New appliance energy standards being proposed? Remember, "energy efficiency" doesn't save energy, they'll say, so vote "no." Got a cheap way to generate electricity at home? It'll just encourage more energy use and won't end up displacing anything.

If we're looking for a critique-free energy resource, it won't be found. But when we are thinking about the various energy resource options, there is a lot of history and experience that needs to be brought to bear in evaluating the value of each resource. And if it is that depth of technical critique that you are looking for, I can refer you to some very experienced experts who can comment on the broad topic on how to measure and value various kinds of investments in energy efficiency.

Plenty has been written about the challenges that climate scientists have in framing their message, and it isn't surprising that the same would be true of researchers whose passion is technology. But considering that BTI's whole raison d'etre is reframing and breaking through, then when they get the reframing very wrong, well, they need to be reminded that their work will have consequences for those of us who are trying to make changes one new program at a time.

November 3, 2010    View Comment    

On Is Nuclear Renewable? - Michael Eckhart, President of American Council On Renewable Energy Says NO!

Without responding to the tenor of this debate or all its points, I'll point out that one key difference between nuclear and the renewable energy resources is that nuclear energy has a much longer history of being subsidized by government at much higher levels than solar, wind, and other renewable energy resources.

Geothermal might be the exception, but basically I think of renewable energy's common thread as being driven directly or indirectly from the sun, rather than by mining limited resources. Of course, all resources ultimately come from one sun or another if one looks back far enough ...

September 30, 2010    View Comment    

On A new denier myth is born, this time for energy efficiency

I anticipated that the BTI post would unleash a cascade of misunderstandings, but Mr. Barton's response is beyond anything I might have anticipated. My post which focused on the spin and framing which BTI placed around the "rebound effect" and was not an attack on the underlying research when properly understood.

(Indeed, here we go. Sigh. I don't believe for a minute that BTI intended to encourage this sort of nonsense about the motives of energy efficiency advocates but until we restore sanity to discourse ...)

So perhaps a longer, more detailed and comprehensive post might have reassured readers like Mr. Barton that I'm neither incompentent, nor manipulative, merely focused on one concern that the BTI post raised.

(See the exchange on our blog.)

But the idea that increased efficiency (which is a proven historical achievement of energy efficiency programs) is somehow invalidaded by this research is a dramatic overreach. But it appears that it will serve a convenient rhetorical line of attack for those whose economic interest is in sustaining energy waste. We're all for free markets except when our product is more expensive, I suppose.

(Please note that I've corrected the post to reflect changes in authorship of the BTI blog subsequent to its publication.)

p.s. - I didn't describe BTI or Jesse Jenkins a denier, but rather described their blog post as midwiving a denier myth.

September 30, 2010    View Comment    

On Energy Efficiency Adventures

Here are some thoughts.

To your immediate concerns:

First of all, I'd suggest getting another referral (maybe from another source). The efficiency of your heating unit is not low because of "wasted" heat (at least not entirely) but because of incomplete combustion. The 78%/95% rating has more to do with burner design and air handling than heat escape. It sounds like the guy might not be the expert you expected.

Second, do you have a boiler or a furnace? In other words, forced air or steam? If you use forced air, then you'll also be saving electricity with a new furnace because of the more efficient (ECM possibly) fan.

There is a marginally decreasing benefit from the higher levels of efficiency. A 95% efficient furnace (boiler?) may not be your best bet, but you should be able to get a cost-effective gas unit at 90% or so.

How's your hot water heater? If you have a boiler, there are some hybrid systems you might look into and get it all done at once.

To your larger concerns:

Residential retrofit is not the most cost-effective option in McKinsey. The most highly cost-effective measures tend to be relatively easy to install, such as commercial/industrial lighting.

Also replace-on-burnout measures usually score very well. These are where you have to replace the furnace/boiler, the only thing that counts in the cost is the difference between the base unit and the more efficient unit. Does that $1,000 repair bill really push you into the replace-on-burnout category? Only you can say, but the incentives are there to help you reach that threshold a little more easily, not to take you all the way there.

So there are some "real world" things missing from McKinsey, true, but they cut both ways. If your old oil boiler/furnace is anything like the one in my friend's house, it makes a good bit of noise. When you upgrade, the benefit of that noise going away won't be counted by McKinsey, but it'll count for you.

June 25, 2010    View Comment    

On The Mark: Why U.S. environmentalists should support offshore drilling

Guess we have to click the link to learn why "this decision represents an important opportunity to shift the environmental movement into the 21st century." I don't see the answer to the question you raised in your title.
April 13, 2010    View Comment    

On Note to Environmentalists: Economists are on your side

Thanks Tim! But we already knew many economists favor strong, fair climate policy!
April 12, 2010    View Comment    

On Ridiculous rate rhetoric

I actually think Florida policy is quite similar to an EERS - it is an administratively established goal that is established pursuant to a state law. I have complied a list of state efficiency standards and goals; Florida's ranks 23rd out of 24 that I found. I'll have to publish the list as a blog. Thanks for the comment!
March 23, 2010    View Comment    

On Some Thoughts on SuperFreakonomics

I disagree that economists should stick to economics in general. There is a lot of value in taking a multi-disciplinary approach to writing for the public (e.g., Jared Diamond).

I think what you mean is that economists should stick to economics when they are pushing a contrarian or minority viewpoint. A good contrarian builds an anti-orthodox argument up using entirely orthodox or easily verifiable facts, perhaps throwing in a single anti-orthodox viewpoint or two. But where this book appears to go wrong is in building up its entire argument by contesting widely accepted perspectives over and over again.

The authors have attempted to restore their contrarian credentials in a recent blog post, but the fact remains that their book chapter remains riddled with one controversial or just plain wrong conclusion after another.

November 2, 2009    View Comment