The End of Energy Obesity

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The End of Energy Obesity: Breaking Today's Energy Addiction for a Prosperous and Secure Tomorrow by Calgary-based energy economist Peter Tertzakian outlines the unsustainable nature of current global energy demand growth and identifies potential solutions, many of which come unexpectedly from outside of the energy sector. The metaphor in the title invokes a parallel between the elevated incidences of excessive eating and energy consumption in wealthy nations, predominantly in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Whereas physical obesity can undermine a person’s wellness and overall health, energy obesity is more abstract, making itself known on a regional or national level by way of increased geopolitical, environmental and economic pressures. The author borrows the vocabulary of appetite and desire to explicate phenomena in the sphere of energy economics without, however, passing moral judgment on the actual practice of excessive consumption.


Like the author’s bestseller A Thousand Barrels a Second: The Coming Oil Break Point and the Challenges Facing an Energy Dependent World (2006), The End of Energy Obesity examines the energy industry by tracing the historical relationship between technological innovation and societal response. Tertzakian coined the term "break point" to describe both the pressures that force the displacement of an incumbent energy source and the subsequent “rebalancing” around a new energy paradigm. An important catalyst for The End of Energy Obesity appears to be the author’s conviction that the world is currently in the midst of a break point of prodigious significance where oil, "the gold standard of energy utility" (p. 101), will see its market preeminence undermined. Signs of break point pressures are legion and include: the triple digit crude oil prices reached in 2008, accelerated economic growth in the populous BRIC countries, widening prevalence of legislative and fiscal measures to address assumed anthropogenic climate change, energy independence policymaking in support of renewable energy and the energy-price influenced global recession. Historical analogues to the current break point are the shift from wood to coal with the industrial revolution and from coal to oil during the World War I. The current rebalancing of the energy mix is substantively different from historical precedents. With the possible exception of natural gas, there are still no other energy sources with adequate utility to take significant market share from oil, let alone supplant it. The rebalancing underway will be effected only in part by an increase of supply from alternative sources. Tertzakian believes that the cross-fertilization of information, communication and energy technologies promises dramatic improvement in conservation practices and energy efficiency. He cites telepresence technology, smart grid networks, Skype telephony and virtualization software as potential "break point innovations" that could dramatically change energy needs by reconfiguring the ways people live, work and play.


In A Thousand Barrels a Second (2007), Tertzakian wrote:

[…] as global oil consumption tops one thousand barrels per second, it is clear that we are now approaching a dramatic break point in the energy cycle whose consequences will reach into every home. Even a manageable break point period like the oil shocks (1973 and 1979) of the 1970s reverberated worldwide for almost 15 years until conservation policies and the introduction of new energy sources rebalanced the supply and demand equation. In comparison, today’s predicament has the potential to be longer, more confusing, and unmanageable because there are no radical technologies or simple fuel substitutes available to solve our current issues. (Thousand Barrels, p. 7-8)

Generally speaking, through its exploration of demand-side opportunities to influence energy consumption patterns, The End of Energy Obesity distinguishes itself from the supply-side orientation of A Thousand Barrels a Second. Tertzakian believes that social and technological innovation will allow modern industrial society to enjoy increasing standards of living while both decreasing energy consumption and preserving the environment.

The vocabulary of appetite[edit]

The End of Energy Obesity uses “the vocabulary of appetite” to frame the energy problematic in an easily accessible, yet provocative way. Citing Maslow’s notion of "man as a perpetually wanting animal", (Energy Obesity, p. 126) Tertzakian dismisses as utopian efforts to reduce energy consumption by either coercive measures or voluntary restraint. The author divides the planet into two realms – WantingWorld and WealthyWorld – corresponding to the developing and developed world, respectively. China and America are quintessential examples of these contraposed worlds. This choice of terms has inadvertently led to the misconception that WealthyWorld nations have actually transcended wanting; in fact, the WealthyWorld still remains “perpetually wanting”, but distinguishes itself from WantingWorld only by a higher per capita gross domestic product. The desire of WantingWorld’s five billion citizens to achieve the same high standard of living of WealthyWorld’s one billion citizens imposes an insupportable strain on the earth’s resources and ecosystems. As part of his research, the author traveled extensively throughout China. These experiences, described in extensive passages throughout the book, underscored his concern about the dire consequences for the planet as China proceeds along the glide path continuum from Wanting to WealthyWorld.

Energy obesity is, in a sense, a qualitative metric to measure humankind’s environmental impact, but it should not be confused with the more quantitatively precise term carbon footprint. A nation’s energy appetite as well as its “energy fitness” is determined by a wide range of factors. For instance, the per capita energy needs of a cold, expansive and developed country like Canada are considerably higher than a warm, small and less developed one like Costa Rica.


With the First Principle of Energy Consumption, Tertzakian postulates that economic development requires per se an ever increasing energy supply. And since man is characterized as “a perpetually wanting animal” who will not voluntarily submit to a lowering of his standard of living and comfort, the possibility is ruled out of reversing economic growth for the sake of decreasing energy consumption and “energy appetite”.

To a certain extent, efforts towards raising energy efficiency can lessen but not break the stronghold of the First Principle of Energy Consumption. Jevon’s Rule, which states that "new modes of [fuel] economy will lead to an increase of consumption", is the classic formulation of the paradox more commonly known as the rebound effect (p. 119). According to this rule, energy saved through increased efficiency becomes itself a driver for more energy consumption. In this vein, Tertzakian regards efforts to raise fuel economy in automobiles (e.g. hybrid vehicles like the Toyota Prius) as highly laudable, but insufficient to truly break the grip of the First Principle. Denmark, Switzerland and Japan are held up as paragons of energy fitness. Common to their seeming success in overturning the causality of the First Principle of Energy Consumption is the forceful policymaking of a federal government and a willing populace.

As a conceptual tool to assess the gains available through raising efficiency, Tertzakian introduces the Asymmetry Principle which he defines as “the lopsided relationship between how much raw energy is available at the primary source — for example, at a natural gas well — and the small fraction of energy that is actually put to useful work at the consuming end — for example, in lighting a light bulb. The Asymmetry Principle states that a unit of energy saved at the consumer level amplifies into multiple units of energy saved at the source. In effect, the Asymmetry Principle exposes the high levels of inefficiency in society’s energy systems and highlights the tremendous leverage offered by efficiency gains and conservation in mitigating source energy consumption.” (Energy Obesity, p. 269)

New socio-economic template[edit]

The problem of energy obesity is found, ultimately, in the very structure of the socio-economic structure or "template" of modern nations. One of Tertzakian’s most visionary[citation needed] theories holds that this template is about to undergo a radical transformation through the implementation of new forms of information and communication technology such as 3D immersive environments, telepresence, tele-offices and videoconferencing. These technological developments are progressively obviating the need for work-related travel and dissolving the concept of distance. It is conceivable that a new socio-economic template is emerging where these communication tools become ubiquitous in work and non-work activities and bring with them the associative benefits of dramatically reduced energy consumption.[citation needed]

Natural gas[edit]

Consistent with the book’s prescription of a "low-carb" energy diet is the discussion about the huge supply potential of natural gas. Natural gas as a fossil fuel produces almost 25% less carbon dioxide per unit of energy input than oil, not to mention almost 50% less than coal. Innovation in the area of hydraulic fracturing has opened huge reserve potential in the area of nonconventional gas with reservoirs of various geologic types including shales, tight gas and coal beds. Geologists have not arrived at any definitive numbers based on the new capabilities, but Tertzakian considers that the United States alone has 1,000 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of exploitable natural gas, the equivalent of 166 billion barrels of oil.



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