In the past few months, I have read both The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell and The Bottomless Well by Peter Huber and Mark Mills. In a way both predict the future of energy use in the U.S., as I realized today during a panel session at Schneider Electric's Initiative 2008. Of course, both theories predict vastly different futures.
The Tipping Point, not normally considered an energy publication, merely suggests that when enough early adopters and connectors believe in an idea it becomes a matter of time until that idea becomes inevitable, at least as I understood the text. The work has been so widely disseminated that speakers will reference the tipping point as a business axiom. Hence, the combination of Hubbert's peak, $140 per barrel oil, and climate change politics makes it inevitable that we will conserve energy. Panelists at the Schneider event also cited supply constraints from lack of new electric generation and transmission construction as further enducement to be energy efficient and save energy.
Not surprisingly, Huber and Mills offer a different view in their 2005 book, which is about energy and human nature. They opine that energy efficiency is not an energy-saving tactic, if that term is synonymous with load reduction. In a recent edition of Mission Critical, Christian Belady of Microsoft labelled this phenomena Jevons' Paradox and applied it to data centers.
Huber and Mills go further yet and suggest that energy efficiency is an engine for load growth, and they harness steam engines, locomotives, iPods, x-rays, lasers, and cell phones to make their case. They further suggest that this is a good thing, as energy-intensive activities will prove to be the solution to, and not the cause of, our environmental troubles.
Huber and Mills seem to have history on their side, but I wonder if their curve can continue on forever. I wonder, too, if energy efficiency has finally attained the tipping point, just as it seemed destined to do so many times in the past. That's a problem with grand theories of how the world works: their flaws only become visible in hindsight.