The importance of time for energy

This essay is the third of a series of four appearing this week on GigaOm.  It draws from material in Jonathan Koomey’s latest book, Cold Cash, Cool Climate:  Science-based Advice for Ecological Entrepreneurs, which is being released by Analytics Press on February 15, 2012.  

Written for entrepreneurs and investors, this book describes how to profit from tackling climate change, one of this century’s greatest challenges.   The author acts as your company’s scientific advisor, summarizing the business implications of the climate problem for both new and existing ventures.  Koomey helps you effectively allocate scarce time and resources to the most promising opportunities, drawing upon his more than 25 years of experience in analyzing and implementing climate solutions.

The importance of time for energy

One of the most important but overlooked issues in promoting low emissions technologies is that unless they are simply better than what they replace, it will be hard to get the broader society to adopt them widely. This means that these products need to be designed to deliver multiple benefits, and often the single most valuable added benefit they can bring is saving people’s time.

Time is money

For a long time I was an avid recycler, drove a super-efficient Honda Civic VX, and always turned the lights out when I left the room. Then I had kids, and my diligence was tested, then abandoned, in the face of the demands of parenthood. I still do the best I can, but there’s no way I can possibly do everything right and also be a good father (and the twins come first).

Fortunately, my decline in environmental virtue had a silver lining: it helped me understand what it will take to create a low-carbon society. Most folks don’t have time in their busy lives to worry about environmental issues, so we need to make it easy for them to make the right choices.

A lot of environmentalists think of pollution as a moral problem, but changing people’s morals is hard. Helping them make their lives better while also reducing pollution? That’s a much easier sell, and that’s the goal for which we need to strive.

I replaced my VX with a Toyota Prius in 2004, and that car exemplifies this lesson. Not only is it efficient, it’s a great car, with Bluetooth, voice recognition, automatic unlock for the doors, adequate acceleration, lots of legroom, and a state-of-the-art navigation system. Soon after I bought it the Prius was named the Motor Trend car of the year—I finally owned a cool car! And the best part was that it was also the most efficient car on the road.

Time is energy

Another truth that follows from basic physics is that speeding up physical processes usually requires more energy. So if you want to push a vehicle through a fluid more rapidly, the power needed goes up as the square of the velocity (as Saul Griffith points out in the Foreword to Cold Cash, Cool Climate). If you want to ship a package overnight, it will use substantially more energy than if you ship by ground. And if you travel by air instead of train, you’ll use much more fuel.

One way out of this bind is to use information technology (IT), which allows us to redefine the task to require less physical energy even though we are accomplishing that ultimate goal more efficiently and quickly. You can use IT to ship information directly (moving bits instead of atoms), in which case transmission is almost instantaneous, or you can use it to better plan your activities, so you reduce your need for physical travel. An example of the latter is the solar powered Big Belly trash compactor for outdoor applications, which not only compacts the waste five times, but also sends a text message when full, so the truck knows when to pick it up. These combined innovations reduce truck travel much more than 80 percent!


Time has value and good solutions embrace that fact; otherwise they won’t become pervasive. It’s hard to value time in our personal lives, but we all know it is limited, in the near term by life’s complexity and ultimately by our finite lifespan. That’s true for businesses, too, whose biggest cost is usually payroll. That means solutions that save time AND reduce pollution will sell like gangbusters.