Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The Breakdown Institute's Nightmare Visions

In last week's New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert described how the Danish island of Samsø has transitioned to wind electrical generation, biomass (aka straw and such) and other available technologies. Samsø's carbon footprint is essentially zero, with offshore electrical generation excess to the island's needs displacing fossil fuel used for transportation.

Bunnies are encouraged to read the article, what caught Eli's eye was Kolbert's description of why this happened:

For the past decade or so, Samsø has been the site of an unlikely social movement. When it began, in the late nineteen-nineties, the island’s forty-three hundred inhabitants had what might be described as a conventional attitude toward energy. . . .

Then, quite deliberately, the residents of the island set about changing this. They formed energy coöperatives and organized seminars on wind power. They removed their furnaces and replaced them with heat pumps. By 2001, fossil-fuel use on Samsø had been cut in half. By 2003, instead of importing electricity, the island was exporting it, and by 2005 it was producing from renewable sources more energy than it was using.

The residents of Samsø that I spoke to were clearly proud of their accomplishment. All the same, they insisted on their ordinariness. They were, they noted, not wealthy, nor were they especially well educated or idealistic. They weren’t even terribly adventuresome. “We are a conservative farming community” is how one Samsinger put it. “We are only normal people,” Tranberg told me. “We are not some special people.”

This was a SOCIAL movement, not an economic nor scientific one. Not so long ago Eli reported how plastic bags disappeared in a flash in Ireland as a result of social pressure and regulation. Just a week or so ago, Samuel Bowles wrote in Science about the mis-match between morals and economics
High-performance organizations and economies work on the basis not only of material interests but also of Adam Smith's "moral sentiments." Well-designed laws and public policies can harness self-interest for the common good. However, incentives that appeal to self-interest may fail when they undermine the moral values that lead people to act altruistically or in other public-spirited ways. Behavioral experiments reviewed here suggest that economic incentives may be counterproductive when they signal that selfishness is an appropriate response; constitute a learning environment through which over time people come to adopt more self-interested motivations; compromise the individual's sense of self-determination and thereby degrade intrinsic motivations; or convey a message of distrust, disrespect, and unfair intent. Many of these unintended effects of incentives occur because people act not only to acquire economic goods and services but also to constitute themselves as dignified, autonomous, and moral individuals. Good organizational and institutional design can channel the material interests for the achievement of social goals while also enhancing the contribution of the moral sentiments to the same ends.
Although one is tempted to First Kill the Economists, a sentiment argued for in The Dismal Science How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community by Stephen A. Marglin and not much favored by economists like E. Roy Weintraub, perhaps one need not go so far, but it is clear that we need a better way of valuing common needs.

Samsø demonstrates that we have the technology needed to decarbonize energy generation. The second part of Kolbert's article describes the 2,000 Watt Society, somewhere between a vision and a program to reduce energy consumption in the developed world while maintaining a first world lifestyle. This Swiss organization is building buildings and systems to reduce energy intensity. Although they have not reached their goal they have demonstrated technologies that can carry us a far way towards that goal.
. . . a group of Swiss scientists who were working on similar issues performed a thought experiment. The scientists, all of whom were affiliated with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, asked themselves what level of energy use would be sustainable, not just for an island or a small European nation but for the entire world. The answer they came up with—two thousand watts per person—furnished the name for a new project: the 2,000-Watt Society.

“What it’s important, I think, to know is that the 2,000-Watt Society is not a program of hard life,” the director of the project, Roland Stulz, told me when I went to speak to him at his office, in the Zurich suburb of Dübendorf. “It is not what we call Gürtel enger schnallen”—belt tightening—“it’s not starving, it’s not having less comfort or fun. It’s a creative approach to the future.”

The technology exists to reach this goal
The cantons of Geneva and Basel-Stadt and the city of Zurich subsequently endorsed the aims of the 2,000-Watt Society, as did the Swiss Federal Department of the Environment, Transport, Energy, and Communications. “At first glance, the objective of a two-thousand-watt society appears unrealistic,” Moritz Leuenberger, the head of the federal department, has said. “But the necessary technology already exists.”
and is already being used

In Switzerland, I visited several other buildings that, like the EAWAG Center, had been specifically designed to maximize efficiency. One was an upscale apartment building in Basel. The apartments have eighteen-inch-thick walls filled with insulation, triple-paned windows coated with a special reflective film, and a heat-recovery system that captures eighty per cent of the energy normally lost through ventilation. Instead of a boiler, it has a geothermal heat pump, which essentially sucks energy out of the groundwater. In the summer, the same system is used for cooling. (In compliance with Swiss building codes, the building also contains a bomb shelter.)

The bottom line is simple

“It usually makes sense to become more intelligent in any human activity,” Stulz told me. “As the former Saudi Arabian oil minister Sheikh Yamani once said, the Stone Age didn’t end because there were no more stones. It ended because people became more intelligent. ”

There is some doubt that this will work a second time.


cynthia said...

So the Breakthrough-ers would have a breakdown to see a community achieve energy self-sufficiency without having to tap into breathrough's mighty arsenal of breakthroughs. This just goes to show that as one man wakes up to a dream come true, the other wakes up to a living nightmare.;^)

bigcitylib said...

Apparently, Heat pumps are becoming big on the Canadian West Coast. My parents are having one installed this summer (Vancouver Island), and only after lots of their neighbors already made the switch. No organized social movement behind this; if anything, maybe its because alot of "snowbirds" see them working during the winter months in places like Arizona and bring the idea home with them.

Dano said...

McKibben makes a protracted argument about this very thing in Deep Economy.



Anonymous said...

anon 1117

Heatpumps are fine, but before you really get committed to wanting to put several million out there, all across the Northern US, there are a couple of considerations.

One is, they need larger rads and fatter pipes (because they are low temp). So you have to replace the whole installation. Expensive.

A second is that the ground source ones are fine, but you need to have enough buried pipe. Otherwise you end up creating your own little bit of permafrost and of course, your efficiency falls off a cliff. Enough is really a lot of area. Drilling down for it costs a bomb, if you try to go vertical.

A third is, they don't really do hot water. Well, they will preheat a bit, but you still need another way of getting it hot enough for a shower.

A fourth is, the air source ones only work very well in temperate climates. As external temp falls, their efficiency falls off dramatically.

So yes, Vancouver probably they might be good, and though expensive to install, quite a bit cheaper to run than oil. But Vermont? Not so sure. Quebec, or the Canadian prairies? Dubious.

A promising technology is said to be passive heat store. That is, you have a huge tub of parafin wax which as it changes from solid to liquid and back stores or releases heat. You then get to run your conventional boiler in long high output bursts, so you avoid that period of startup which consumes lots of fuel for little warmth. Heard this can make dramatic percentage savings. Also expensive.

On the whole, in the northern countryside, in the coming years, it seems like it will be hard to beat wood or coal for heating in terms of price. Maybe as pellets?

Anonymous said...


I thought is was "RP and the Breakdancers"

I wonder what these people will do when they finally realize that people don't need them OR their "brilliant" ideas.

It's funny (to me at least) how the smartest ideas seem to usually come from the "dumbest" people and the stupidest ideas from the "smartest" people.

Anonymous said...

On the road to the 2000 watt society, one tiny miracle, the 100 lumen/watt CREE XR-E LED. 8% of the world's energy use is going into inefficient lights--. Small thinking?

Anonymous said...

Us North Americans have a long way to go to get to 2000 watts. If we ever get serious about it airline stocks will not be very valuable.

Arch Stanton

Gareth said...

Great article, thanks Eli. Kolbert writes very well, and knows her stuff.

Anonymous said...

A wind farm (Cape Wind) proposed for just off the coast of Cape Cod has been stuck in litigation for YEARS, largely because of a privileged few -- including some very powerful people like Ted Kennedy -- who do not want it in their "back yard."

It seems that these people are very "environmental" until something comes along that threatens their property values (not) and/or threatens to "ruin" their view (not).

I'd say the very first thing we need to do here in America is do a wholesale "cleaning" of our "leadership" (and not just the Prez) because as long as people like Bush, Kennedy and the rest remain in power, the "green revolution" ain't going to happen.

Anonymous said...

Anonymical, at 54 gallons jet fuel per person per year, airline operations are 240 watts continuous per person. Are contrails helping or hurting right now?

Anonymous said...

Lepus, I am not sure where you get 54 gal of jet fuel / yr. Is this a world wide number?

For the US I get:

826 gal/person/yr.

This assumes all domestic jet fuels are used by US citizens (obviously they are not) but it does not count jet fuel used by US citizens outside the country.

Even with rounding errors it is more than an order of magnitude greater.

Sources used:

Volume conversion:

Your question about contrails is of little relivance as the effects of CO2 will outlast the effects of contrails by many orders of magnitude ~5(?)

Arch Stanton

Anonymous said...

Hi Arch,

The figure is for commercial aircraft, from---- checked the EIA reference, and I am getting a factor of ten different outcome for per capita jet fuel produced (all purposes, including military, etc)from you result. Easy to check, 826 g/y/p would equal 16 million barrels a day--approximately %70 of US oil consumption? The contrail question is more complicated from my viewpoint. The 2003 european heat wave released four years worth of carbon storage from that region, as just one example. If we are near tipping points in some regions, southwest US as an example, the CO2 from jets might be less than the release of an overheated ecosystem.

Anonymous said...


Looks like you got me there on the kerosene calculations (darn pesky zeros).

The original article makes it clear that all carbon sources including those embodied by the infrastructure that supports our lifestyle (including military) are considered in the 2000w calculation.

I still don’t buy your contrail argument though. “If we are near a tipping point” is a defeatist argument banking on truly unknowns. It could be used to deny any action at all. How do you know if we are near a tipping point? For that mater how do you know we are not approaching 2 tipping points and further CO2 emissions reduction will prevent us from going over the second? (You did qualify your statement with “in some regions”).

Besides, you originally asked about contrails. Contrails are ice (water) crystals. C02 is of little (if any) relevance to them. Now you are changing your original question.


Anonymous said...


All fair comments, except that I made no "contrial argument". I asked a question. I would advise going after the big emitters first, and maybe leave the planes alone for now. They are, after all, just %2 of global GHG. Same with that other bogeyman, concrete.

Anonymous said...

Going after the big emitters? Weren’t you the one talking about LEDs Lepus? 100 lumens/watt? That is in the range of fluorescents.

Part of the beauty of the 2000 Watt Society is that it is voluntary. It is based on personal decisions based on (relatively) hard numbers. There is no going after anyone. People choose to participate and choose how to allocate their watts. It is merely a new metric to evaluate personal energy use that may be more meaningful to some than barrels, tons or kWh.. Some may find it more confusing because at first it seems like it uses a measurement of power to evaluate consumption of energy.

To be honest I find it depressing that none of the people interviewed actually achieved the 2000 watt goal. I know I could not attain it barring incredible efficiency breakthroughs or economic catastrophe. That doesn’t mean that one should not try to become closer to sustainable if one chooses that as a personal goal.

Since you brought up “going after the big emitters first” let me ask what you propose, that we ban new coal plants and use economic sanctions to encourage other nations to do the same? That would be a big step indeed. None the less I don’t see why it negates the value of personal conservation. We’ve wasted another 8 years waiting for significant legislation. Personal choices are something we can all make now if we choose to.


Anonymous said...


The 100 lumens per watt is just a milemarker. DOE is aiming for 200 lumens per watt by 2020. On the way to a 2000 watt society, having durable, very low power, good quality lighting is very positive. I don't need to tell you about the linkages between third world poverty, lighting, education, population growth and habitat destruction.

I am fairly sure we are mostly in agreement on all the aspects of this complicated issue.

I will defer to J. Hansen and L. Brown on what we need to point our noses at first. As to how, have you seen that coal spot market prices have tripled for most markets in the last year? Google NAS and coal reserves.

Personal conservation is valuable, of course (if for nothing better than it clears the mind of a whole subset of worries), but in the long run, I believe we are dealing with a consumer culture which needs to be provided with safer technology.

Zero energy houses, plug in cars, sustainable agriculture, etc.

Dirigibles instead of jets?

Anonymous said...


It sounds like we may agree on some things. However it sounds like by “going after the big emitters” you mean “The free market is taking care of it”. Is this correct?

BTW saying “most [coal] spot markets have tripled in the last year” is a gross exaggeration according to my sources. The only class of coal that has tripled is metallurgic (coking) coal (much of it is being exported). The lower grades of coal used for energy production that make up the bulk of the market have generally doubled in price.

I didn’t need to Google it. The eia has a wealth of info about energy.


Anonymous said...

Oops, here's a better link: