Energy Conservation Can’t Reduce Energy Sprawl Completely

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Published on April 24th, 2009  |  Discuss This Article  


Chrissy Schwinn’s recent post called me to task for not talking enough in my first post about the role of personal energy conservation in reducing the amount of land impacted by new energy development.

There is a tradeoff: Renewable energy generation, so crucial to meeting the goal of preventing catastrophic climate changes, takes more space than making energy from fossil fuels. This is particularly true for biofuels, which take a lot more space than other renewables like solar or wind power.

Chrissy is absolutely right — energy conservation can help us escape this tradeoff, at least partially. However, it’s unlikely that energy conservation can completely eliminate the need for new energy development, unless Americans are willing to consider fairly radical changes to how they live.

Our report (still in review, so all the numbers below may change after scrutiny from the scientific community) tries to quantify how much habitat energy conservation can protect. The average household in the U.S. consumes about 1,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per month. If you are wondering what the heck a kilowatt-hour is, consider this: if you turn on a 100-watt light bulb for 10 hours, you’ve consumed 1,000 watt-hours, or 1 kilowatt-hour.

Suppose that average family reduced their electricity consumption by 10 percent…an easily achievable goal for most families. By not consuming 100 kilowatt-hours every month, that family would prevent about 240 square feet of energy development.

But saving an equivalent amount of energy by reducing liquid fuel consumption saves more land — 820 square feet — because of the large future role for biofuels implied by the federal renewable fuel standards. These are average numbers for the nation, and the actual number would vary a lot depending on how your region gets energy.

While personal energy conservation can reduce energy sprawl, I believe that it is unlikely to achieve major gains in energy conservation. Environmentalists have for decades appealed to personal responsibility, and these appeals have generally only changed the actions of a few people. Most people need financial incentives to act.

A properly constructed federal regulation on greenhouse gases will do this, as somewhat higher energy prices encourage people to conserve. There are many other possible incentives, all with the same goal: making sure that when people consume less energy, they have more money in their pocketbook.

(Image: Compact fluorescent lightbulb. Credit: Robert S. Donovan through a Creative Commons license.)

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