March 30, 2013

Is our economic model based on cheap energy?

Not really.

First, both the US and other developed countries got that way with "moderately expensive" energy, not cheap energy. Oil and electricity have been cheap in the US in the post-WWII period, but energy was rather higher in years before that: coal and electricity cost much more, adjusted for inflation. The US, and other countries, succeeded quite well in growing strongly even when energy was much more expensive, whether it was coal or oil.

Wind power is quite affordable (if perhaps not quite as dirt cheap as US post-WWII oil and electricity prices), scalable, high-E-ROI, etc, etc. So are nuclear, and solar even if they aren't quite as cheap at the moment (coal is also plentiful and cheap, unfortunately), so I see no reason to expect energy to ever be more than "moderately expensive".

The fact that energy pre-WWII was a much higher portion of GDP means that it was a much heavier burden on the economy. If wind and solar are a little more expensive, that means that the wind/solar sector has to be a little larger than otherwise to power the rest of the economy. This analysis suggests that this is not a big deal: that sector would still be a much smaller portion of the economy than pre-WWII.

Second, fossil fuels aren't nearly as cheap as they seem. Pollution is an unrecognized, external cost. So are the military costs we're seeing currently of roughly $500B per year. Those pollution costs aren't sustainable (especially CO2), but unfortunately the military costs of security for oil supplies probably are (in fact, many corporate interests are quite comfortable with them...). Not that they don't entail many costs to the economy, including diverting scarce scientific and engineering talent away from creating new products, and growing the economy. Moving away from oil and other fossil fuels will actually be much cheaper in the long-run than BAU.

Finally, let's assume that Business As Usual involved spending about 5% of our economic activity (perhaps measured by GDP) acquiring energy. If the cost of acquiring energy doubles, then we have to dedicate another 5% to that activity. GDP might go down by 5% quickly, in case we'd have a deep recession. Or, it might happen over time - if it took 10 years, then we'd see a reduction in economic growth of .5% per year, for 10 years. After that transition was complete, economic growth would continue. So, a reduction in "net energy" has a significant impact, but it's not TEOTWAWKI.

Does unusually strong growth since 1945 show the value of cheap energy in that period?

No, US growth was faster before 1945, using moderately expensive, non-oil energy:

1800-1900: 4.13%
1900-1945: 3.53%
1945-2000: 3.17%

"real GDP" at