Friday, February 02, 2007

Useless metric of the decade

Does the idea of "embodied energy" convey any useful information whatsoever in the vast majority of its applications?

I ask because I recently read about the difficulties faced in calculating this metric. For the uninitiated, it means the energy consumed in creating one unit of product X. People concerned about climate change and the supply of energy, of which I am one, sometimes suggest that it should be used as a reference to encourage the conservation of energy. For example, some say it should be printed on the labels of consumer goods, or even used as a basis for pricing.

But nobody can agree how to define it. Do you include the entire energy usage of the factory? Heating? Lighting? Street lighting? Do you include the energy usage of the workers on their way to work? If yes, why not include the energy they use at home - after all, they are spending their wages from one lot of energy use to buy electricity, gas, and vehicle fuel? Quite quickly you get into a theological level of debate. Should BT take responsibility for the power used to route every IP packet that crosses its network? After all, it's buying the power to drive the routers and switches. But a lot of those packets, even a majority, are transiting from - say - AT&T to DE-CIX, and BT didn't explicitly choose to carry them. The contractual relationships don't include them, and they didn't start it. Shouldn't either DE-CIX or AT&T pay?

Worse, when you try to implement an energy tax on this basis, you hit some horrible policy landmines. Why should I pay for the embodied energy in X? Why should the manufacturer get away with it? Or their workers - if you include their journey to work, why should they be able to get away with their energy use? Imagine if every issue of Mobile Communications International's price included a tax to represent the electricity South West Trains uses on my behalf to get me to work. Why should the reader pay so I can go to work? Why can't I use the same principle and charge my season ticket to expenses? This is serious. I don't control the use of the energy, so a tax on me can't change the behaviour of the people who do. There's no incentive for the manufacturer (or their suppliers, or the distributor..) to save energy, unless you double (triple or worse) count. But there is worse.

The whole thing is a lot like VAT carousel fraud. There, the fact that the tax is collected or refunded at various points between the manufacturer and the end-user means that it's possible to make a good living shunting the liability from level to level. The best solution I've seen is just to charge it at the final sale to the end user.

Now there's an idea.

Rather than the intellectual struggle to define embodied energy, the even tougher one to avoid creating stupid distortions, opportunities for fraud, and perverse incentives, and the cost of the bureaucracy needed to police it, why not just impose a tax on energy at the point of use? Or rather, on nonrenewable and CO2-generating energy? We've already got a highly efficient system for the collection of indirect taxation, run by the least corrupt civil service in the world. It's called HM Revenue and Customs, and the taxation is VAT, as mentioned above.

There is one kind of product where "embodied energy" is useful, of course. That is anything intended to convert energy available in nature into a useful form, like a solar panel or a wind turbine. If they produce less energy in their design life than they use (nonrenewable) energy in production, they are useless. Seeing as there are costs of production and operation beyond energy, though, they are very unlikely to be worth producing.


Ginger Yellow said...

"Imagine if every issue of Mobile Communications International's price included a tax to represent the electricity South West Trains uses on my behalf to get me to work. Why should the reader pay so I can go to work? "

I agree with the general thrust of the post - the practicalities of such a system would be horrendous - I think this argument is misguided. The whole point of ideas like a carbon tax or "embodied energy" is to correct a market failure by pricing externalities. Therefore it makes perfect economic sense for, say, the workers' energy expenditure while comnmuting, to be included in the cost. In theory, it would incentivise employers to hire people who live close by, or to subsidise rail tickets to get people out of their cars. But that's only in theory. As you say, the amount of bureaucracy and the inevitable distortions would sink the scheme.

alan said...

If we could standardize how to calculate embodied energy then it would be a very useful tool. We couldn't put labels on products stating their embodied energy if everybody chose different parameters to calculate the embodied energy.

As you said, it is particularly important in the renewable / sustainability industry. In Australia, the government is playing the green card and suggesting we ban incandescent lights and use compact flouros only. I won't mention the stupidity of this idea. Nobody would argue that the efficiency of an CF is much greater than an incandescent light. But when you factor in the embodied energy in the production of all the circuitry and the mining of materials for a CF does it really work out better for CO2, never mind the environmental impact.

Anonymous said...

There appears to be significant "english" on the ball for this term. If one or few control production, education, and media, the "embodied influence" for increased profit will steer definitions toward desired outcomes.

The reasonable man test is abandoned with the assumption of ignorance, on the preponderance of paid for "scientific" evidence.

What is the value of peer review when all peers are beholden to the same "embodied influence."

Anonymous said...

In the case of the CF-- those use at a conservative estimate 1/4 the amount of energy than does an incandescent. Keep in mind that a incandescent is essentially a glowing heater that uses about 2% of its consumed energy to produce light... the rest is heat.

As for the larger question of Embodied Energy one must take into consideration that this is a relatively young science, far from perfection. Standardizing the metrics involved will not be simple, and even if it could be done i am not sure if it is a such a great idea anyway. Ultimately it is the end user who is responsible for considering the life cycle of a given product,or process... and so we must think critically and understand how these numbers are being arrived at. It may not be all that important to have a specific number on a label, but to at least have a range, maybe a color coded system that gives a general idea. the concept of turning efficiency into financial feasibility is what stands out as being vital is this argument.

Anonymous said...

embodied energy is so vast that its a never ending debate.but to say that a tax should be added for a company workers travel is maddnes, surely a worker does'nt travel to work for free!!.....

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