Per Capita Energy Consumption Has Declined in the United States

Michael Giberson

At the Freakonomics blog, James McWilliams offers a review of sorts of Robert Bryce’s new book Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future.  McWilliams reports that the book is “a sustained attack on our irrational infatuation with wind and solar power.” Part of Bryce’s “sustained attack” is a chapter on Denmark and wind energy, and McWilliams’s piece mostly directs itself to explaining and commenting on the Denmark chapter.

Unfortunately, McWilliams’s review only convinces me I shouldn’t rely on his opinions on energy topics.

I end up not believing the review mostly because the explanations of Denmark’s situation feel incomplete and a bit ad hoc.  But rather than ask you to trust my feelings, let’s look at a point McWilliams made where fact checking is easy. Here is McWilliams:

It should be noted, in all fairness to Denmark, that its citizens have done something the U.S. seems unwilling to do: they’ve kept energy demand flat. Today, Denmark uses the same amount of per capita energy as it did in 1981. Remarkable.

Do you interpret these two sentences as McWilliams claiming that Danish consumers have kept per capita energy use level since 1981 and U.S. consumers have increased per capita energy use?

A few moments on the internet turns up data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration on per capita energy use: per capita energy use was 332 million BTU in the United States in 1981, 327 million BTU in 2008, and 310 million BTU in 2009.  These numbers are from the 2008 Annual Energy Review and the 2010 Annual Energy Outlook.  A EIA spreadsheet from the 2006 International Energy Annual [XLS] has data on many countries, including the U.S. and Denmark, over the period 1980-2006. In general both countries have seen ups and downs in per capita energy use from 1980 to 2006, with the ups tending to reflect periods of low energy prices or stronger economic growth and the downs tending to reflect periods of higher energy prices or weaker energy growth. Unremarkable.

Since I can’t rely on McWilliams’s review, I don’t know yet whether I’m interested or not in Bryce’s book.  However, Bryce’s “Five myths about green energy,” an op-ed appearing in the Washington Post just before the his book was published, seems similarly incomplete and ad hoc in its analysis. (How critical for energy policy analysis is a calculation of watts of energy output per square meter of land devoted to energy production? It strikes me as reaching for a techno-scientific sounding statistic to dress up the author’s dismissal of wind power which is itself based on other grounds.) But op-eds are brief and by nature driven to anecdote rather than careful explication of data; maybe the book has more substance.

(A tip of the hat with link to John Whitehead at Environmental Economics for drawing my attention to the McWilliams review at Freakonomics.)

5 thoughts on “Per Capita Energy Consumption Has Declined in the United States

  1. Gaaaah! Grr, Grr:

    “In the new green economy, batteries are not included. Neither are many of the “rare earth” elements that are essential ingredients in most alternative energy technologies. Instead of relying on the diversity of the global oil market — about 20 countries each produce at least 1 million barrels of crude per day — the United States will be increasingly reliant on just one supplier, China, for elements known as lanthanides. Lanthanum, neodymium, dysprosium and other rare earth elements are used in products from high-capacity batteries and hybrid-electric vehicles to wind turbines and oil refinery catalysts.

    China controls between 95 and 100 percent of the global market in these elements. And the Chinese government is reducing its exports of lanthanides to ensure an adequate supply for its domestic manufacturers. Politicians love to demonize oil-exporting countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, but adopting the technologies needed to drastically cut U.S. oil consumption will dramatically increase America’s dependence on China. ”

    He is assuming that behaviour and technology are static in the face of changing relative prices!

    Now, what is it that we have to continue to believe in order to retain our secret economists’ decoder rings?

    That behaviour and technology are not static with respect to changing relative prices.

    That particular argument is therefore a fail….and not just because I’m one of many people looking at how we might extract rare earths from sources outside of China.

    He’s managed to fail both theory and empiricism in one statement.

  2. “How critical for energy policy analysis is a calculation of watts of energy output per square meter of land devoted to energy production?”

    Depends on whether you think you have to pay for land. Most “renewable energy advocates” proceed from the assumption that land is free. The rest of humanity knows better.

  3. Sure the land has to be paid for, but I guess my point is that normally we can let private calculation of costs and benefits subsume the analysis of watts of energy output per square meter of land input. Of course private calculation of costs and benefits doesn’t always capture all of the potential gains from trade, and the right set of policies can sometimes lead to better outcomes. But I’m objecting to the idea that there is any general policy relevance in particular ratios of output to selected inputs.

    Or, to put my objection another way, yes we can measure and rank technologies (or particular power plants) in terms of watts of output per square meter of land input. Similarly, we can measure watts of output per cubic foot of water input and watts of output per number of hours of skilled labor employed and watts of output per pound of copper used and so on. Does the energy to land ratio count for more or less than the energy to copper ratio or the energy to water ratio? Does it matter if the square meter of land is in suburban New York or the great plains of North Dakota? How do you reflect that information in the ratio? The watts of energy output to square meter of land input just isn’t by itself a very useful bit of data.

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