Lawyer and journalist Peter Huber, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, has made a career of challenging the way we think about everything from environmentalism to liability law. In his new book, The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run out of Energy (Basic Books), he and co-author Mark P. Mills contend that environmentalists should love nuclear power, free marketers should embrace hybrid cars, and we should all calm down about high oil prices.
Assistant Editor Kerry Howley spoke to Huber in April.
Q: Where does the pursuit of efficiency lead?
A: Year after year, all the way back to James Watt, every major technology grows more efficient. Our car engines are two to three times more efficient than anything we had before. Our refrigerators are 40 percent more efficient in terms of their compressors today than they were 20 years ago. Your computer in terms of bits processed is doubling every two years or so.
And what has happened to total energy consumption in every one of these sectors? It has gone up, not down.
Q: Why is that?
A: You buy a more efficient refrigerator, and your electricity bill goes down. What are you going to do with that money? Maybe you're going to go take a trip in the Caribbean after a couple of years of saving; maybe you'll drive to the mall and see a movie, or eat dinner out. The savings don't just disappear. If they don't translate into a bigger refrigerator, they translate into more cash in your pocket. Over time, without exception, GDP grows faster than energy growth.
Q: How should we think about sky-high oil prices?
A: Oil is a valuable commodity. We use a lot of it and will continue to use a lot. But its importance in our economy is actually declining. If you look at the last 20 years, all the highest-growth sectors of our economy and a substantial part of the GDP growth has been fueled by electricity, not by oil. Fueled by electricity means fueled by fuels that generate electricity, and those aren't oil.
Q: You're a fan of hybrid cars.
A: There is no doubt in my mind that hybrid vehicles are coming. We see them move into the luxury car market for very good reason: They give more performance, they're ultimately more reliable, and before long they'll be cheaper too.
This won't save energy over time, but the trend is a good one. The convergence of the transportation and electrical sectors is very important.