Monday, February 23, 2009

What's the most energy-efficient state in the US?

Apparently the answer is my state, New York.

You can see the info for all states in this interactive map.

(Via the Freakonomics blog. If you're interested in the full report by the Rocky Mountain Institute, here's the PDF.)

Could this be some of the fruits of "elevator environmentalism" in NYC?

Maybe that's part of it, but there seems to be a problem with how the report measures energy efficiency. They did it "by dividing each state’s G.D.P. by the kilowatt hours of electricity it consumed." As a commenter on the Freakonomics blog says:

This study assumes all kinds of weird relationships between energy and GDP that just don’t seem to be accurate. You know why New York is so high on that list? Because banking takes a lot less energy than farming does to produce money. You know why Mississippi and Kentucky are at the bottom? Because farming and coal mining are energy intensive and produce inexpensive products.

So what’s the answer then? Stop farming and make every state convert to a white collar economy? Doesn’t seem feasible to me.
Tellingly, the blog post does ask readers for feedback, but only feedback on "how to close the gap" among the different states, not suggestions for more useful ways to frame the problem or measure the gap.

In fairness, the authors of the study show up in the comments section to defend their conclusions. Do you think their defense is very convincing? They claim to control for a lot of variables. But even taking them at their word, there seems to be a deeper problem, which is that a lot of the energy-intensive activity (farming, etc.) that's done by the lower-ranked states makes it possible for, say, New Yorkers to enjoy the array of modern conveniences that make it so comfortable to live the lifestyle of, say, a reasonably affluent office worker in the Northeast. (I don't want to overstate this as if it were some kind of clear-cut dichotomy: the report ranks California, which produces enormous amounts of food among other goods, as one of the most energy-efficient states.)

In other words, the suggestion that the supposedly less efficient states should simply conform to the more efficient ones may be a nice thought -- but it's easy to wish for the world we're living in to be better. We're able to look at it first-hand, up close, and vividly see its many flaws. It's a lot harder to see how all the interconnected parts of the hulking, complicated machinery of society might be thrown out of whack if we made the proposed sweeping reforms -- even on the overly optimistic assumption that they'd be implemented brilliantly and in good faith. (By the way, for those readers who might think of me as a liberal, I'm try to invoke a conservative principle here.)

And of course,
New York being #1 in GDP/kWh just shows what you can do by fabricating earnings on Wall Street. They will not be #1 on that list for long.
Another commenter has a similar point but, I think, takes it too far:
Look at the list of the most efficient by kWh. 7 of the 10 have little in the way of "real" wealth creation industries - by which I mean either farming/extraction or manufacturing. If you want to create real wealth that doesn’t involve repackaging money or ideas a dozen times, then I think a different metric is required.
I don't know how you can distinguish "real" wealth from non-"real" wealth. Why are farming and manufacturing the only things that are "real"?

Why isn't work that gets done in New York "real"?

This calls for some My Dinner with Andre, specifically Wally's rant:
I mean, is Mount Everest more "real" than New York? I mean, isn't New York "real"? I mean, you see, I think if you could become fully aware of what existed in the cigar store next door to this restaurant, I think it would just blow your brains out! I mean...I mean, isn't there just as much "reality" to be perceived in the cigar store as there is on Mount Everest? I mean, what do you think? You see, I think that not only is there nothing more real about Mount Everest, I think there's nothing that different, in a certain way. I mean, because reality is uniform, in a way....


Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

The data are measuring nonequivalent entities. A comparison between states is simply irrelevant, because states are not the separate systems, with equivalent output and input, differing only in magnitude, that a political map implies. They're "interconnected parts of the hulking, complicated machinery of society." They have specialized functions. Like bodily organs they're not self-sufficient. The eyes consume much more energy than the hands -- does that mean we should spend less time with our eyes open? To put it another way, what if we compared the energy efficiency of the former homelands of Indian nations? It would be irrelevant.