Is an Energy Production Bias in Our DNA?

Instead, we should be thinking about our consumption.

Texas Power lines
Power lines in Texas.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A question that many people are asking after the disaster in Texas is how could there be this cascade of failures? Why was everything so brittle? Ken Levenson, Executive Director of the North American Passive House Network (NAPHN), reminds us that it wasn't just the power supply that failed, but also that there were problems on the demand side, with buildings so "brittle" that they just froze up and fell apart. "What’s really depressing is how this catastrophe plainly shows that our building industry is ill-suited to take on the problems of climate disruption and resilience. The widespread building failures should be shocking to everyone." Levenson worries that there is an energy production bias in our DNA, writing on the NAPHN website:

"In moving from fossil fuels to renewables, does it strike anyone else as weird that there is so much emphasis on energy production, and so little on doing more with less energy? So little emphasis on making better buildings? We’ve largely gone from a mantra of drill, drill, drill – to a mantra of solar, wind, solar. We’re substituting one altar of production for another and missing the benefits of better buildings and better resource utilization."

I have noted previously that if it is not in our personal DNA, it is certainly part of our lives. The physicist and economist Robert Ayers compared it to a law of thermodynamics:

"The essential truth missing from economic education today is that energy is the stuff of the universe, that all matter is also a form of energy, and that the economic system is essentially a system for extracting, processing, and transforming energy as resources into energy embodied in products and services."

Vaclav Smil put it another way in his book "Energy and Civilization":

"To talk about energy and the economy is a tautology: every economic activity is fundamentally nothing but a conversion of one kind of energy to another, and monies are just a convenient (and often rather unrepresentative) proxy for valuing the energy flows."

Ken Levenson reminded Treehugger of a speech former Vice President Dick Cheney made at the beginning of the Bush administration, where he called for a new power plant to be built every week for the next 20 years.

"Already some groups are suggesting that government step in to force Americans to consume less energy as if we could simply conserve or ration our way out of the situation we're in. Conservation is an important part of the total effort but to speak exclusively of it is to duck the tough issues. Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy."

This certainly seems to have been the prevailing attitude in Texas, where they designed a production system to deliver power at the lowest possible cost, to homes built to the lowest possible efficiency standards.

At Treehugger, I have always focused on the consumption, the demand side of the ledger, calling for simplicity and sufficiency (not using any more than you need), for bikes instead of cars, and for Passive House design instead of net zero design, where people add renewable supply to balance their demand. This is not a popular opinion, as the comments to a post on the subject confirm.

screen shot of Treehugger

Screen shot of Treehugger

But Levenson writes that this obsession with production, even if with solar panels, rather than reducing demand, is going to lead to more Texas-style troubles.

"Faced with an infirmed building stock and a counterproductive bias toward production, what’s the leading solution proposed by industry? Net Zero, or Net-Zero Ready. That’s net zero based primarily on production, not efficiency. Net Zero codes being proposed, seem to indicate that no one needs to worry much about making buildings significantly better.... In extreme weather, or in most weather, our buildings are still operating poorly, they are unsafe, and they require far too much energy. Is it too much to demand that our buildings provide basic comfort, health and safety, as a building, and not as a Tesla accessory?"

In a telephone conversation he told Treehugger:

"It's disturbing that the industry is captivated by the net zero mantra, investing in production rather than doing better."

Tesla Solar Roof Houes
The Future We Want.


Elon Musk called it "the future we want," imagined with the big wide house with the solar roof, the Tesla car in the garage and the Tesla battery on the wall. It's the apotheosis of production bias, even when it's green. Electric cars? We need bigger! Electric F150s and Hummers and Cybertrucks! Wood buildings? Let's make them 60 stories high! And of course, net zero, with solar panels filling batteries on big sprawly suburban houses.

I have always had a consumption bias, especially in the last year while trying to live a 1.5 degree lifestyle, hoping that I can help change the way people think. Because as Ken Levenson notes, it is as if it is in our DNA, it has been going on so long.

"At the dawn of the industrial age, the power of production was so intoxicating it replaced millennia of common sense. As we stand on the precipice of what will be a more significant shift in human fortunes, are we doomed to repeat the mistaken belief in the primacy of production? Or can we put efficiency and conservation first? " 

Ken Levenson says "Let’s use the polar vortex to shake us out of our stupor." It's time to reset our priorities and build the future we need.