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Energy Efficiency:
What every Progressive MUST know

Energy efficiency is the goal of every sane person on earth. What’s not to like? If energy is used more efficiently it solves pollution problems, foreign policy dilemmas, balance of trade issues, etc.

So why aren’t energy efficiency problems being meaningfully addressed? It is tempting to look around for bad guys--oil industry executives, automobile manufacturers and their unions, spineless legislators, the advertising business, insane tax policy, etc.

Folks who wish to blame the “bad guys” have a small point. But when it comes to actually making a society more energy efficient, beating up on the “bad guys” is not very productive. Because the real reason a more energy efficient society never gets built is MUCH more simple and frightening: Energy efficiency is a LOT harder than it looks!!!

Since energy efficiency is obviously a worthy goal, it is necessary for folks to understand just why it is so difficult to achieve. If we do not understand the real problems, then any solution we progressives can offer will fail--along with any credibility we might have as political leadership.

If it is too good to be true, it probably is

Almost everyone has heard some version of the following story:

My brother-in-law worked with a guy who invented a carburetor that got 200 miles per gallon (85 km per liter). But did it make it into production? Oh No! Some guy from Exxon came along and gave him $10 million for his patent. But he never got to spend most of it because he drove off the road in his new Porsche--the brake lines had been cut. And Exxon has been sitting on this invention ever since.

I first heard this story in 1964 and most recently, two weeks ago. The folks who track urban legends like this find its origins in the 1930s. Its persistence is probably due to the fact that it has all the elements of a story people want to believe--evil oil guys, incompetent automakers, and the heroic garage inventor.

So the fact that this legend is utterly untrue and that no one has ever seen an impartial demonstration of this miracle carburetor does not prevent even educated folks from repeating it. Not long ago I had a retired chemistry professor / political progressive ask me to sign a petition to force the secret carburetor patent into the public domain so that “it could benefit all of us.”

It is not enough that we should point such poor confused souls to an urban legend tracking site. It is much more important we understand just why this story is IMPOSSIBLE so we do not make public policy errors based on similar thinking.

The devil is in the details

The primary reason why the carburetor story is a lie is that carburetors are but ONE element that determines the fuel efficiency of an automobile. Other elements include rolling resistance (tire pressure, wheel bearing friction, etc.), aerodynamic resistance, vehicle weight, driving conditions, and driver skills and habits.

The carburetor, which provides the fuel/air mixture an engine needs for proper operation, was a problem child from the first days of the internal combustion engine. It was always going out of adjustment and when it did, the engine ran badly and mileage plummeted. In fact, carburetors were such headaches, automobile manufacturers began replacing them with fuel injection--a transition that was completed by the mid 1980s.

Two points in the previous paragraph should be highlighted because they shed light on the impossibility of a magic carburetor.

1) There is an optimum fuel/air mixture determined by basic chemistry and while a carburetor that is operating at less than the optimum will get lousy mileage, there is no “super-optimum” where mileage continues to get better. Once the problem of creating the ideal fuel/air mixture has been solved, ALL further mileage improvements must be found elsewhere.

2) Those “incompetent” automakers knew this long ago and solved the problem by getting rid of the carburetor. So anyone who even brings up the subject of carburetors is either showing their age or hasn’t recently looked under the hood of a car. It should also be noted that the development of computerized electronic fuel injection was NOT something a lone inventor was ever going to pull off in his garage.

In fact, the search for better mileage occupies the efforts of teams of engineers around the world. Some companies like Honda make fuel efficiency the central feature of their corporate culture--if they produce a vehicle that is not best in its weight and body-style classification, it isn’t for lack of trying.

The pursuit of fuel efficiency in a mature industry like automobile production is a world where finding a fraction of ONE mile per gallon is cause for celebration and anyone who could find a two mpg improvement would probably be made head of an engineering team.

Public policy implications

Progressives who believe that the easiest way to solve the problems created by a petroleum based economy is to pass legislation to raise fuel efficiency standards, are likely to be disappointed with the results. There are no magic technological bullets that will much lower energy consumption.

This true for a host of foundation technologies, not merely automobiles but electric motors, aircraft engines, household furnaces, etc. We are up against limits imposed by nature itself. Not only has the low-hanging fruit been plucked, but some very high stuff as well. At some point, legislating higher efficiency standards in hope of producing a desirable outcome becomes foolish. King Canute proved this point long ago when he demonstrated that kings cannot order the tides about.

As in the automobile example where engineers must go looking elsewhere for efficiency improvements once the fuel/air mixture problem has been solved, so public policy must go looking beyond mere technological fixes if there is to be real energy efficiency improvements.

Ultimately, energy efficiency is a function of DESIGN

Design is often confused with decoration because the word is often misused in just that way. This is also the word engineers who in are the business of specifying a heating system for new building must use to describe what they do.

In between the decorators and the engineers are the industrial designers who argue that while good design is aesthetically pleasing, it must incorporate a deep human understanding to increase functionality. The focus on design when the question is energy efficiency has one overwhelmingly important reason--it is almost impossible to change the energy efficiency of anything that requires energy to operate ONCE IT HAS BEEN BUILT.

Think about a television set. It requires x watts to run and probably a few watts when shut off. The ONLY way lower energy consumption is to watch it less and unplug it when shut off--you cannot change how many watts it requires when running. Since energy efficiency is a measure of how many watts it takes to operate, you cannot, by definition, change the energy efficiency of a television once it has been manufactured. Unfortunately, this principle also applies to bigger consumers of energy as well.

That big ugly SUV your neighbor bought when gasoline was 99 cents a gallon will continue to get 8 miles per gallon until it is ground up for scrap.

Houses can be retrofitted for better energy consumption but such a project is very expensive, requiring costly parts like triple-glazed windows and fussy, labor-intensive efforts like re-insulation. Because such projects are so expensive, they almost never pay for themselves in energy cost savings. And so they don’t get done very often and those who would do this sort of work, never get the chance to improve their skills.

Probably the most significant contributor to increased energy consumption in USA over the past 50 years is urban sprawl. This is a problem that no drive to increase energy-efficiency is likely to solve because the only way to increase the energy efficiency of a city once it has been built would be to move buildings around.

In fact, about the only category that can change its once manufactured energy efficiency are light fixtures--and then only some of them. This special case is made possible because the part that actually consumes the energy--the bulb itself--is a part that is designed for routine replacement. However, even here, MANY fixtures will only accept a bulb identical to the one originally installed.

Using those large frontal lobes

Recognizing that design determines energy efficiency and overall consumption suggests a whole range of policy options that have a far greater chance for success than merely mandating higher standards. Let me try to explain with a really good example. rafter

This is a typical rafter/wall intersection. Houses have been built this ways for hundreds, if not thousands of years. There are millions of homes in USA that have employed this building technique. The logic behind it is impeccable--the roof meets the wall--the rafter is nailed to the top plate. What’s not to like about such an arrangement?? rafter insulated

Several things, actually, if the intent is to insulate the building.

1) There isn’t much space for insulation where the roof and wall intersect.

2) This space will be reduced because a space must be provided for air circulation--a well-ventilated roof is mandatory in hot climates to minimize heat buildup in the attic and in cold climates to prevent the formation of ice dams. Insulation vents are cheap but installing them is a fussy job in tight quarters. The temptation to skip this step is VERY high.

3) Since typical insulation batts cannot be tapered, the practice is to just force them into place. Unfortunately, crushed insulation loses its effectiveness. So not only is there not much insulation, what insulation there is doesn’t work very well.

4) Heat rises. So the greatest amount of heat in the room just happens to be where the potential for heat loss is also the greatest. This little problem has probably pumped more carbon into the atmosphere than all SUVs combined.


The solution to ALL these problems in astonishing simple because almost no one uses rafters these days. (The replacement is the engineered truss and its use is so widespread that VERY few carpenters even know HOW to cut rafters any longer.) With an engineered truss, there is absolutely no reason why there should even be a rafter / wall intersection.

That simple solution is to DESIGN a space for the insulation to go.

insulated truss

No tapered insulation, and the installation of insulation vents is now optional.

So the labor savings to insulate this way easily make up for the tiny cost increases for custom trusses and finishing a slightly taller exterior wall.

The lessons learned

I have known about this insulation solution for almost 30 years. I have never had a truss builder say anything but “No problem” whenever I have asked if such trusses could be built. Yet I have actually seen this done less than 10 times in my whole life. The question is WHY?

It’s not my problem. Unless an architect or designer specifies this kind of roof / insulation construction, no one considers it. There are a few architects around who understand that insulation systems must be designed from day one, but these people are rare indeed. MOST architects concern themselves with the aesthetics of a building and just assume that the builder will be able to insulate whatever building has been drawn. The builder, in turn, often subcontracts out the insulation work and so remains essentially unconcerned about the labor considerations of the job.

The preservation of archaic traits. Rafters intersect with walls. It has been that way for centuries, why change now?

Who cares? Most homes are built for retail sale. The new owner will live in the new house for less than five years on average. Details like how the roof was insulated will hardly register as a consideration under such circumstances. Such home buyers will be much more worried about the wallpaper in the bathrooms. (sigh)

So a simple, cost-effective way to reduce major amounts of carbon emissions goes unused. This doesn’t require new technology or a major investment and yet it isn’t implemented because of social habits. Yet it precisely this realization that can guide public policy.


Since energy efficiency and pollution are largely a function of design, we could hold our designers to higher standards. For example, architects would not be able to get or renew their licenses unless they could demonstrate an understanding of total insulation systems. Building permits could not be issued unless the insulation details were specified in the plans and met VERY high standards.

Finally, new buildings could not be granted a mortgage unless they met strict energy requirements as indicated by thermal imaging and leak-down tests. The home buyer may only be interested in bathroom wallpaper but society as a whole has a HUGE interest in the structure’s energy consumption and should enforce these interests with lending standards.

Energy efficiency talking points

1) The bigger the energy user, the more important the need for social constraints. It is more important to regulate the energy consumption of cars than of TV sets, houses than cars, or cityscapes than houses. Good city planning is by far the most important element of any drive for higher energy efficiency.

2) There are no magic bullets. Increased energy efficiency will result from thousands of little changes--NOT from some grand idea.

3) Energy efficiency is determined by the laws of nature. Anyone who claims efficiency improvements that cannot be explained using basic physics should be ignored like any other charlatan.

4) Since the laws of nature cannot be altered through human legislation, the social desire for greater energy efficiency can only be assisted through legislation that provides for design and research funding, mandates minimum standards based on what is physically possible, or addresses social issues like land use planning.

5) Design and planning is extremely important. Just remember, once something has been built, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to change the amount of energy it consumes. For example, while it may be possible to mitigate the some of the consequences of sprawling a city over precious surrounding farmland such as with telecommuting, it would be MUCH wiser to avoid such disastrous decisions in the first place.

See also:

Part One: Populism
Part Two: Populism--Size matters
Part Three: Populism--a matter of class
Part Four: Populism--Marxism NOT
Part Five: Populism--technological literacy

Finance vs. Industrial Capitalism
For further information on Walter Heller's economics

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