Dimming the light on human ingenuity

Artificial lighting and GDP per capita on the Korean peninsula

On the 26th March 1886 the House of Lords debated amendments to the recently enacted Electric Lighting Bill, with Lord Houghton proclaiming electric lighting had a “very brilliant future before it". Exactly 125 years later on 26th March 2011, the lights will go out on this optimistic vision of a better future.

The World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) is asking for lights to be switched off in homes, public buildings and historic monuments for 60 minutes later this month during Earth Hour, an annual event to highlight the impact of energy use on the environment. WWF states bluntly that “switching off your lights is a vote for Earth, or leaving them on is a vote for global warming”, an uncompromising stance which leaves little room for more nuanced views. While the energy saved by switching off lights during Earth Hour is negligible, the symbolism of a shared experience is everything. Unfortunately the symbolism is entirely misplaced and ignores the socially and environmentally progressive story of artificial lighting.

In 1859 a small farm in Pennsylvania became the site of the first successful oil well in the United States. Oil was about to save the whale. With the Gulf of Mexico spill still fresh in our minds this seems scarcely credible. However, it had been known since 1854 that oil could be fractionated into a range of liquids including paraffin for lamps. Prior to the use of oil from the ground, oil from whales lit many American homes. So, in a reversal of the usual environmental narrative, the oil industry saved the whale. This is why the symbolism of Earth Hour is so entirely misplaced, and indeed rather ironic. The wonderful story of artificial lighting has been one of vast improvements in energy efficiency, plummeting costs, soaring utilisation, and from the WWF’s perspective, a decoupling of production from the natural environment. We now burn coal, methane and uranium to power artificial lighting. In the past we burned whales.

This first commercial success for the oil industry was relatively short lived. While the use of paraffin saved whales, Thomas Edison killed the paraffin lamp. Early filament electric lamps devised by Edison were less than one percent efficient and were eventually replaced by tungsten, fluorescent and now highly efficient solid-state lighting. Each new innovation delivered a step change in energy efficiency. However, these improvements in efficiency did not lead to a reduction in energy use but, wonderfully, greater energy use, brighter homes and work places and an escape from the diurnal day-night cycle. Before the innovations of Edison and others the world was an unimaginably darker place. At the start of the 18th century humanity used 100,000 times less energy for lighting than at present. The candle lit world of Earth Hour is a temporary and theatrical recreation of this pre-industrial era, the passing of which should be celebrated rather than used as a symbol to highlight the apparent excesses of prosperity.
Improvements in energy efficiency can also been seen in the long-term historical transition of fuels from wood to coal, oil, methane and uranium. As pointed out by Cesare Marchetti and Jesse Ausubel, each fuel produces more energy per unit weight and significantly less carbon, particularly so for carbon-free uranium. For example, one kilogram of coal can power a light bulb for 4 days, one kilogram of methane for 6 days and one kilogram of uranium for a remarkable 140 years. These energy transitions did not take place because of emissions targets set by the Victorians, but because each new fuel offered lower costs or better energy utility. As an entirely unintended consequence we have been continually reducing the quantity of carbon emitted per unit of energy produced. It is through an acceleration of this long-term historical decline that carbon emissions will eventually start to fall while global energy consumption continues to rise.

While the energy density of fuels has increased so has the efficiency through which fuel is turned into useful work. Modern, compact combined cycle gas turbines and nuclear plants now produce copious quantities of energy, but use only very modest amounts of steel, concrete and land. Ironically, the WWF’s vision of our energy future is based almost entirely on diffuse renewable energy that would require astronomical quantities of material, land and capital to deploy. It is improving energy density that has led to a relative de-coupling of energy production from the environment, both in terms of land, material resources and carbon. In the future we will achieve an absolute decoupling by burning methane, uranium and later thorium rather than coal and oil, not just because they are cleaner fuels, but because they are better fuels.

These improving efficiencies, of both fuels and the machines to convert fuels into useful work, have led to a historical decline in the real cost of energy. Most impressively, in the mid 19th century energy and labour costs decoupled for the first time in human history with the advent of practical steam power. Energy costs fell while incomes rose and prosperity began to soar. In the same manner, the improving efficiency of artificial electric lighting from filaments, to fluorescing gas and now solid state devices has led to a continuous reduction in the life-cycle cost of producing artificial light. These cost reductions have allowed greater utilisation, and so an immense democratisation of its use. But as with all improvements in energy efficiency, the long-term result has been a growth in energy consumption which will continue until unmet demand is saturated. As ultra-efficient solid-state lighting becomes widely available, the end result will be a further growth in energy consumption for artificial lighting, particularly when its cost falls within the reach of the poor of developing nations. Global demand for artificial lighting is far from being saturated.
A rapid growth in the use of artificial lighting in the developing world could well accelerate energy consumption as children are able to read after sunset, local businesses stay open longer and work can take place indoors, all of which will lead to a better educated and productive people with growing GDP per capita. This is exactly the progressive, positive feedback, which led to soaring prosperity in the developed world. Indeed, so important is artificial lighting to economic development that it is has been proposed to use night-time illumination as measured from satellite imagery as a proxy for GDP. For example, the contrast between North and South Korea is rather stark, and as some wits have noted, in North Korea every hour is Earth Hour.
Aside from North Korea, the developing world should be able to realise the same level of economic progress achieved in the developed world, but significantly faster as technical innovations such as solid-state lighting quickly diffuse through global trade. This acceleration is evident from historical trends measuring the quantity energy required to produce a unit of GDP. While the United States and other now developed nations took some 200 years to transition from largely agrarian poverty, through inefficient heavy industries to high-technology prosperity, China is tearing through this development cycle in a matter of decades. This is a largely unreported but truly stunning success.
The alternative vision promoted by WWF though Earth Hour is for a future of energy austerity, where energy use is seen as unethical rather than virtuous. The Energy Report, commissioned by WWF, envisages a world of 9 billion people in 2050 but with largely the same global energy consumption as today. Their vision is of development within limits. For example, rather than advocating an ambitious programme of grid electrification in the developing world, by the middle of the 21st century WWF offers low-technology solar cooking stoves powered by concentrated sunlight, rather than functional electric ovens and hobs. WWF enthuses "these small scale solutions lead to a significant reduction in energy demand" and are "one of the ways the developing world is becoming more energy efficient". The obvious drawback, that such devices require food to be prepared outdoors during daylight hours when other productive labour could be undertaken is quietly ignored.

The real challenge now is to develop energy technologies that can meet rapidly growing unmet demand in developing nations. These are the people who will need copious quantities of low cost energy, many of whom will have no alternative but to participate in Earth Hour. We will need to replace indoor cooking using wood and animal waste, so-called traditional biomass, with something far better than solar stoves. A key set of technologies will be innovations to improve energy efficiency and so grow, not reduce, energy consumption.

In advocating devices such as solar stoves for the developing world, WWF is confusing energy efficiency with demand reduction, concepts that are often used interchangeably. Efficiency is a natural consequence of technical innovation and leads to a socially progressive growth in consumption for an energy service until demand is saturated, after which energy consumption for that service can fall. For example, using an energy efficient condensing boiler in a home that is already comfortably warm provides the same energy service, but with lower energy consumption. Demand reduction however can be a socially regressive tool that uses artificial increases in cost specifically to suppress energy consumption. For example, so-called ‘smart meters’, which will connect domestic appliances to energy utilities are seen as a useful tool to reduce overall energy consumption in developed nations.

Certainly using a smart meter to allow utilities to remotely switch off domestic freezers for a few minutes to clip peak grid demands will go unnoticed and will lead to a much more efficient distribution and utilisation of energy. However, artificially raising the price of energy, for example during periods when demand is high and future intermittent renewable energy production is low, will simply impact on the poorest first and the most affluent last. By using temporary price rises, communicated to consumers through a smart meter, the most affluent will be offered energy services when desired, while the poor will be nudged to wait until demand is low and spot prices fall. It is the behaviour of consumers that will be adjusted to meet the demands of fluctuating renewable energy production, rather than energy production geared to meet the real needs of people.

The overarching message of Earth Hour is that collectively humanity is demanding firm action on climate change from government. WWF states that through the shared experience of Earth Hour we "demand commitment to actions that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions”. This is entirely laudable, but unfortunately the policies advocated by WWF are one of the major roadblocks to such a low carbon future. In their G8 Climate Scorecard WWF curiously places nuclear powered France a lowly third. On reading the small print of their methodology it transpires that “WWF does not consider nuclear a viable policy option” and actual French carbon emissions for electrical energy production are artificially inflated by a factor of four as a penalty, dropping France from clear first place to third. WWF cannot simultaneously advocate sitting in the dark during Earth Hour to save the planet while keeping one hand tied by forcefully campaigning for the global prohibition of nuclear energy.
A global campaign to switch off electric lights for 60 minutes during Earth Hour may be a clever means of trying to galvanise public opinion. However, it will represent a wave of darkness sweeping round the globe, dimming many symbols of genuine human achievement at a time when we need to call on our technical ingenuity and inventiveness to meet the energy challenges of the future. If you do find yourself in the dark during Earth Hour, think of those in the developing world who will remain in the dark when Earth Hour ends. When you switch the lights back on, think of the overwhelmingly civilising and liberating influence of the growth of artificial lighting achieved through improvements in energy efficiency. And, think of the whales saved by 150 years of continuous technical innovation.

First published Spiked 9 March 2011