Thursday, July 03, 2008

The 2,000-Watt society

In this passage from a fascinating article this week in the New Yorker, a group of Swiss scientists pose the question, what level of per capita energy use would be sustainable?
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.” ...

One way to think about the 2,000-Watt Society is in terms of light bulbs. Let’s say you turn on twenty lamps, each with a hundred-watt bulb. Together, the lamps will draw two thousand watts of power. Left on for a day, they will consume forty-eight kilowatt-hours of energy; left on for a year, they will consume seventeen thousand five hundred and twenty kilowatt-hours. A person living a two-thousand-watt life would consume in all his activities—working, eating, travelling—the same amount of energy as those twenty bulbs, or seventeen thousand five hundred and twenty kilowatt-hours annually.

Most of the people in the world today consume far less than this. The average Bangladeshi, for example, uses only about twenty-six hundred kilowatt-hours a year—this figure includes all forms of energy, from electricity to transportation fuel—which is the equivalent of using roughly three hundred watts continuously. The average Indian uses about eighty-seven hundred kilowatt-hours a year, making India a one-thousand-watt society, while the average Chinese uses about thirteen thousand kilowatt-hours a year, making China a fifteen-hundred-watt society.


Anonymous said...

I think that's an interesting post, but I'd like some more concrete examples of wattage-use. For example, how many watts would I be using if I commuted instead of driving 40 minutes to work?
Important to realize that, for China at least, there are areas of extreme poverty and areas of extreme wealth. Would the "averaging" out of how much watts the Chinese consume take this into account?
Because, IMO, it's not useful to say that most of the world lives on less than "X" per day, when frankly, a good portion of the world lives in conditions that the average Westerner would not want to live in.

usfoodpolicy said...

For energy conversion ratios, I wonder if somebody more knowledgeable than I am will add a comment about sources. The New Yorker article mentions a study of five hypothetical families in Switzerland, which offer five different models of living richly while meeting this energy standard. I will look it up soon.

Interestingly, even among the leadership of the 2,000 Society, most of the people interviewed fail to meet the standard, largely because of air travel. That's my family's shortcoming also. I have been brainstorming whether it would be possible to go without air travel in 2009, but it would be a real career sacrifice for me.

Maybe that's what makes a possible air travel discipline even more interesting than other things my family has been doing to experiment with lower energy use. After all, biking to work is more fun than driving anyway. A new radiator boiler saves money as well as energy. New insulation in our non-air-conditioned home, apparently, will keep it pleasantly cooler in summer as well as using less energy in winter. Low air travel will be in some ways a greater challenge.