Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Driving my SUV to make us energy independent!

The headline for the linked article is, "10 MPG: The Road to Energy Independence".

I'm afraid I'm not doing that well – my van gets close to 20 MPG.

What we have here is the counter-intuitive notion that increasing fuel efficiency actually causes us to use more fuel, not less. (Kind of reminds you of the "paperless office", doesn't it?)

Increases in energy efficiency have been the rule in the United States for a century – and especially in the past 30 years. But, as [Peter] Huber and [Mark] Mills write [in "The Bottomless Well"], "Efficiency doesn't lower demand, it raises it…. Efficiency has come, and demand has risen apace." ...the authors show how the "energy cost" of transportation in the U.S. fell by nearly one-third between 1973 and 2003; that is, we used to use nine gallons of fuel for every vehicle mile, now about six. But over this same period, total fuel use did not drop by one-third (as it would under the silly static analysis employed by Mineta and Zakaria); instead, fuel use rose by more than half, from a little under 120 billion gallons per year to over 180 billion gallons.

How does that happen? It's supply and demand again.

Increasing efficiency means you get more bang for your buck. That equates to spending fewer bucks for the same amount of bang. Therefore, bang is cheaper.

When becomes cheaper, so-called marginal uses become profitable. These are car trips that weren't worth making before, or car trips by people who couldn't afford to make them before. These car trips consume a non-zero amount of fuel, and this use is added to the fuel use already ongoing. Thus, as efficiency improves, demand goes up.

It thus follows that if you want us to conserve fuel, you make cars less efficient. This causes some uses to become too expensive, and those trips quit happening. As the trips quit happening, fuel use decreases.

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