The “Japanese level of energy consumption” fallacy

August 9, 2013

Over at The Energy Collective, ecology and sustainability expert Robert Wilson has begun what is to be a series of posts on an envisioned energy transition to a post-carbon global society.  While I disagree that such a transition is imminent, I nonetheless recommend his first piece on the issue, “The Future of Energy:  Why Power Density Matters.”   In this article, Wilson demonstrates why, given their current and foreseeable levels of technological advancement, renewable energy sources will be unable to wholly (or even largely) replace fossil fuels in the world’s energy mix.  That is not to say that they have no place – renewable energy in general and distributed renewable energy systems in particular will (and should) play an important role in future energy choices.  However, the physics of energy density simply make it impossible for a mix of renewables to scale up anywhere close to replacement level for fossil fuels.  Wilson himself sees next generation nuclear power as the key to powering a post carbon future with little or no diminution of standards of living (and, in fact, vastly increased standards for the population of the developing world).  I largely agree with Wilson’s argument.

I diverge from Wilson not on his precise analysis of the limitations of renewable energy, but rather on his vision of the post-carbon future.  Wilson sees a future population of around 9 billion (agree) that will live primarily in cities (agree but would quibble over his projected percentages).   Now, like all New Urbanists, Wilson sees density as a key feature in making future cities work.  The problem is that New Urbanism is a form of utopianism, and utopian visions have the nasty tendency of leading its adherents down terrifying paths to create their utopia.  Wilson, for example, implies support for policies that would almost certainly end up in forcing rural citizens out of their homes and into the cities:

“Packing people more tightly together in cities may not be to the taste of everyone, but it appears to be one of the most achievable and practical ways to reduce how much energy people consume.”

This would be a sort of reverse Pol Pot ideal, and would likely result in similar horrors.   But, even if such a set of policies were able to achieve the desired end peacefully, it still runs aground on a key assumption:  The belief that every nation can achieve the Japanese level of per capita energy usage.  Japan has a highly developed society with a high standard of living, yet it has relatively low per capita energy use.   Many European nations have low per capita use, as well.  “The world,” Wilson tells us,” must be much more like Japan than North America.”  However, there are cultural and geographic factors at play in Japan (and in Europe) that will not translate elsewhere.

Japan is a homogenous and culturally traditional nation with a relatively small geographic footprint.    Canada and the US, on the other hand, have diverse populations and are second and third largest nations on the planet.  Our goods have to travel vast distances to get from place to place, giving us a huge energy costs for transportation that smaller nations need not bear.  Additionally, the North American giants have been – and continue to be – populated by immigrants from all over the globe.  People arrive in North America and never stop moving.  Mobility is in the DNA of North America – children move to different cities from their parents, sometimes thousands of miles away.  And many of us move more than once – I have lived for extended periods in New York, Boston and Los Angeles.    Mobility is fundamentally necessary just to keep in touch with our kith and kin, but it has also come to be inextricably linked to our culture:  for North Americans, mobility is and has always meant freedom.  Thus we find an insurmountable difference in the energy mixes of Japan vs. North America:


Japan energy use by sector, 2010


Canada energy use

Canada energy use by sector, 2010



US energy use by sector, 2010

The US chart is not a perfect comparison, because it separates Electricity out as a separate entity (which is why the Residential sector is so low).  Nevertheless, these numbers tell a clear story.  Japan uses just 5% of its total energy mix in the transportation sector, while it is 25% and 28%, respectively, for Canada and the US.  Using the Japanese model for future energy use will not work in North America, nor probably in other large nations, even (to a lesser extend) those where mobility is not such a cultural touchstone.

In devising a future energy policy, renewables have their place, efficiency has its place, even post-consumerism has its place.  But one-size-fits-all solutions likely will not.  In North America, there are other directions that can at once help solve the energy puzzle, ease the climate burden, and sustain our own unique cultural desires.




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