Dimming the light on human ingenuity

The candle-lit world of Earth Hour is a decadent celebration of an era that we ought to be glad we’ve left behind.

Colin McInnes

Topics Science & Tech

On 26 March 1886, the House of Lords debated amendments to the recently enacted Electric Lighting Bill, with Lord Houghton proclaiming electric lighting had a ‘very brilliant future before it’. Exactly 125 years later, on 26 March 2011, the lights will go out on this optimistic vision of a better future.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) is asking for lights to be switched off in homes, public buildings and historic monuments for 60 minutes during Earth Hour, an annual event highlighting the impact of energy use on the environment. ‘Switching off your lights is a vote for Earth… [L]eaving them on is a vote for global warming’, states WWF. Unfortunately the symbolism of this gesture is entirely misplaced and ignores the socially and environmentally progressive story of artificial lighting.

In 1859, a small farm in Pennsylvania became the site of the first successful oil well in the United States. Oil was about to save the whale. With the Gulf of Mexico spill still fresh in our minds this seems scarcely credible. However, it had been known since 1854 that oil could be fractionated into a range of liquids including paraffin for lamps. Prior to this, oil from whales lit many American homes. So, in a reversal of the usual environmental narrative, the oil industry saved the whale. This is why the symbolism of Earth Hour is so entirely misplaced, and indeed rather ironic. The wonderful story of artificial lighting has been one of vast improvements in energy efficiency, plummeting costs and soaring utilisation. We now burn coal, methane and uranium to power artificial lighting. In the past, we burned whales.

While the use of paraffin saved whales, Thomas Edison killed the paraffin lamp. In turn, Edison’s filament electric lamps were eventually replaced by tungsten, fluorescent and now highly efficient solid-state lighting. Each new innovation delivered a step change in energy efficiency. However, these improvements in efficiency did not lead to a reduction in energy use but, wonderfully, greater energy use, brighter homes and workplaces and an escape from the diurnal day-night cycle.

Until recently, the world was an unimaginably darker place. At the start of the eighteenth century, humanity used 100,000 times less energy for lighting than at present. The candle-lit world of Earth Hour is a temporary and theatrical recreation of this pre-industrial era, the passing of which should be celebrated rather than used to symbolise our current excess.

Improvements in energy efficiency can also be seen in the transition from wood to coal, oil, methane and uranium. Each fuel produces more energy per unit weight and significantly less carbon. For example, one kilogram of coal can power a light bulb for four days, one kilogram of methane for six days and one kilogram of the carbon-free uranium for a remarkable 140 years. These energy transitions did not take place because of emissions targets set by the Victorians, but because each new fuel offered lower costs or better energy utility. As an entirely unintended consequence we have been continually reducing the quantity of carbon emitted per unit of energy produced. It is through an acceleration of this long-term historical decline that carbon emissions will eventually start to fall while global energy consumption continues to rise.

Modern, compact, combined-cycle gas turbines and nuclear plants now produce copious quantities of energy, but use modest amounts of steel, concrete and land. Ironically, the WWF’s vision of our energy future is based almost entirely on diffuse renewable energy that would require astronomical quantities of material, land and capital to deploy. It is improving energy density that has led to a relative decoupling of energy production from the environment, both in terms of land, material resources and carbon. In the future we will achieve an absolute decoupling by burning methane, uranium and later thorium rather than coal and oil, not just because they are cleaner fuels, but because they are better fuels.

These improving efficiencies have led to an historical decline in the real cost of energy. But as with all improvements in energy efficiency, the long-term result has been a growth in energy consumption which will continue until demand is saturated – and global demand for is far from being saturated. So as ultra-efficient solid-state lighting becomes widely available, the end result will be a further growth in energy consumption for artificial lighting, particularly when its cost falls within the reach of the poor of developing nations.

The expanding use of artificial lighting in the developing world could well accelerate energy consumption: children will be able to read after sunset, local businesses will stay open longer and work can take place indoors. This will lead to a better educated and more productive society with growing GDP per capita. This is exactly the progressive, positive feedback that led to soaring prosperity in the developed world. Indeed, artificial lighting is so important to economic development that some have suggested using night-time illumination, as measured from satellite imagery, as a proxy for GDP. For example, the contrast between North and South Korea is stark; in North Korea, it seems, every hour is Earth Hour.

The developing world should be able to achieve the developed world’s level of economic progress significantly faster as technical innovations such as solid-state lighting quickly circulate through global trade. This acceleration is evident from historical trends measuring the quantity of energy required to produce a unit of GDP. While the United States and other developed nations took some 200 years to move from inefficient heavy industry to high-technology prosperity, China is tearing through this development cycle in a matter of decades. This is a truly stunning success.

The alternative vision promoted by Earth Hour is one of energy austerity. The WWF-commissioned Energy Report, envisages a world of nine billion people in 2050 on the same level of global energy consumption as today. Their vision is of development within limits. For example, rather than advocating an ambitious programme of grid electrification in the developing world, WWF offers low-technology cooking stoves powered by concentrated sunlight. ‘These small scale solutions lead to a significant reduction in energy demand’, WWF enthuses. It is just a shame that they require food to be prepared outdoors during daylight hours when other productive labour could be undertaken.

The real challenge now is to develop energy technologies that can meet rapidly growing unmet demand in developing nations. These are the people who will need copious quantities of low-cost energy, many of whom will have no alternative but to participate in Earth Hour. We will need to replace indoor cooking using wood and animal waste with something far better than solar stoves. We need to improve energy efficiency so as to grow, not reduce, energy consumption.

In advocating devices such as solar stoves for the developing world, WWF is confusing energy efficiency with demand reduction. Efficiency is a natural consequence of technical innovation and leads to a growth in consumption for an energy service until demand is saturated, after which energy consumption for that service can fall. Demand reduction however can be a socially regressive tool that uses artificial increases in cost to suppress energy consumption. For example, so-called ‘smart meters’, which will connect domestic appliances to energy utilities are seen as a useful tool to reduce overall energy consumption in developed nations.

Certainly, using a smart meter to allow utilities to remotely switch off domestic freezers for a few minutes to clip peak grid demands will go unnoticed and will lead to a much more efficient distribution and utilisation of energy. However, artificially raising the price of energy, for example, during periods when demand is high and future renewable energy production is low, will simply impact on the poorest first and the most affluent last. Rather than trying to meet people’s needs, this approach is content to manipulate them.

The overarching aim of Earth Hour is to show that collectively humanity wants a governmental ‘commitment to actions that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions’. Unfortunately, the policies advocated by WWF are one of the major obstacles to such a low-carbon future. For example, when rating the ‘climate performance’ of the G8 nations, nuclear-powered France comes just third because ‘WWF does not consider nuclear a viable policy option’. WWF cannot simultaneously advocate a reduction in greenhouse emissions while forcefully campaigning for the global prohibition of nuclear energy.

Sweeping darkness around the globe, Earth Hour will also dim many symbols of genuine human achievement at a time when we need to call on our technical ingenuity and inventiveness to meet the energy challenges of the future. So, if you do find yourself in the dark during Earth Hour, think of those in the developing world who will remain in the dark when Earth Hour ends. When you switch the lights back on, think of the overwhelmingly civilising and liberating influence of the growth of artificial lighting achieved through improvements in energy efficiency – and think of the whales saved by 150 years of continuous technical innovation.

Colin McInnes is professor of engineering science at the University of Strathclyde. Other articles can be found at Perpetual Motion.

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Topics Science & Tech


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