New Book Review: Crossing the Energy Divide

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A new book touts energy efficiency as one possible environmentally and economic solution for solving the global energy crisis. In Crossing The Energy Divide,  authors Robert and Edward Ayres argue that we need to reform the way we manage our existing energy systems to double the amount of “energy service” we get from every drop of fossil fuel we use.  They claim the resulting improvements in energy efficiency can bridge the global economy until clean renewables can fully replace fossil fuels.

CleanTechies put three questions to the authors:

CleanTechies: Is the U.S. government listening to you on your energy efficiency/waste-to-energy arguments?  If so, where are we at in terms of implementation of your proposals?

Edward Ayres: Crossing the Energy Divide was released only a few days ago, so its messages to policymakers are just beginning to reach U.S. officials.  The week before publication, we received several e-mails from U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, who had read an advance copy of our book on Kindle, and who expressed particular interest in the book’s revelations about the role of thermodynamic efficiency in driving the economy.  Chu (who is a physicist) is pursuing this with his staff, and–given the current state of the U.S. economy–we anticipate that the implications of this argument may soon be shared with other departments and addressed as an interagency priority.

CleanTechies: What do you estimate the cost of implementing these programs to be?  Who should pay for it?

Edward Ayres: Most of our proposals focus on the opportunities for individual businesses or communities to invest in projects that will sharply cut their fossil fuel consumption and carbon emissions, in many cases with modest capital cost and fairly rapid returns on investment.  Of course, as we discuss in the chapter or policy priorities, government can prime the pump (and significantly boost the economy at a critical time) by redirecting some of its subsidies, and particularly by passing legislation that frees the electric power sector to fully exploit the benefits of local power production and renewable-energy inputs to the grid.  The main need there is not for more expenditures, so much as for more informed political leadership. The costs will be largely and fairly quickly repaid by the improved bottom lines.

As for the costs of specific projects, and who should pay, the most general and newsworthy answer is that contrary to popular belief and fossil fuel industry PR, many of the proposals we make entail negative costs, thanks to their reducing the costs of the energy inputs.  We have to emphasize that every product and service in the global economy has an energy cost.

Some of the specific cost estimates–and resulting savings or benefits–include:

Combined Heat & Power (CHP): The World Alliance for Decentralized Energy (WADE) estimated in 2008 that if all new electric power capacity in the next 20 years were to come on line in decentralized facilities, which largely stop the loss of energy in the form of waste heat, the capital cost would be $5.8 trillion, as compared with $10.8 trillion if provided by conventional (business-as-usual) facilities.  That would be a net saving of $5 trillion, of which the U.S. share of savings would be about $1 trillion.  This would be a prime case of negative cost.

Waste-energy recycling in industrial facilities:  We cite a study by Lawrence Berkeley Lab, conducted for the U.S.. Department of Energy, that has identified 95GW of still untapped potential (of the kind we describe taking place at two Indiana steel plants, in our Introduction), which could generate as much as 10 percent of all U.S. electricity at capital costs less than for new coal-burning power plants–and, once the facilities are installed, with no fuel costs (because the fuel has already been purchased for its primary (steel-making or coke-making) purpose.

Climate-change mitigation: Probably the most important single observation we can make in response to this question is that when the role of energy costs in economic productivity are considered (as they have not been in standard economic models), it can now be shown that those who say climate mitigation will be a heavy burden to the U.S. economy have it exactly backward.  While economy-wide figures depend on which of our strategies get implemented, etc., the cumulative evidence indicates that the economy will stall or slide into decline if fossil fuel use is not sharply reduced in the coming era of increased global demand.  In short, compared to the do-nothing alternative, climate-change mitigation will be good for business, as well as for society.

As for who pays, the best answer is that whoever wants to reap the benefits will pay. The role of government will be primarily to guide policy, not incur large costs.

CleanTechies: Is energy recovery compatible with recycling?

Robert Ayres: Energy recovery and energy recycling are essentially the same thing, but as a practical matter what we (in the book) mean by “energy recycling” is to use high temperature waste heat (or a pressure gradient) to produce electricity, or to use low temperature waste heat for space-heating or air-conditioning, whereas “energy recovery” generally means burning some kind of combustible waste material in an incinerator, but also also with the objective of producing electricity.  In fact, the differences are not really fundamental.

Crossing The Energy Divide by Robert and Edward Ayres (Wharton School Publishing; 1st edition): December 30, 2009. Buy from Amazon.

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