Player Piano at the  Musee Mecanique  in San Francisco

Player Piano at the Musee Mecanique in San Francisco

We innately understand that our society has benefited from readily available energy. What we seem to have forgotten is whether energy is actually needed to achieve a specific societal benefit. We should clearly define the outcome then build the best energy system to deliver that benefit.

Once I was approached by an entrepreneur with a great idea. She was trying to convince a large manufacturer of consumer products to change the way they sold liquid detergent. Rather than selling a new container each time, she wanted them to sell a reusable container that the consumer could refill with the liquid. Her financial model predicted many millions of dollars in savings with reduced consumption of plastics. She was very excited by her new business model and the large consumer product company was interested in her idea.

I thought this was a great idea too and that, if successful, it could have a large and meaningful impact. What struck me was that it is, in fact, a very old idea. Before the advent of cheap plastic buckets, say 200 years ago, it was very standard to bring one’s own containers to a store and buy goods in bulk. Without realizing it, she was advocating for an old consumer behavior as if it was new.

Here is a good rule of thumb: if a new technology promotes a common behavior from 200 years ago then it will probably result in reduced energy consumption. Energy consumption rises when a new technology fundamentally depends on readily available energy in order to function.