Cutting Butter With a Chainsaw

When Amory Lovins refers to energy in terms of “quality,” he is referencing one of the principles in the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Entropy is the measure of disorder in the universe and the law states that entropy (disorder) is always increasing. Because of this law there is a spontaneous direction in which energy transformation processes occur, and that direction is always from higher quality (more order) to lower quality energy(less order). To go from low quality energy such as heat, to high quality energy such as electricity, requires the input of additional energy and never happens spontaneously. To use this process for the end-use need of heating air or water is wasteful and inefficient. Because producing electricity requires combustion of premium fuels (which are scarce) at relatively low efficiencies (30-40%), while air and water can be heated using other more simple methods with extremely high efficiencies. In his article, “Energy Strategies: The Road Not Taken,” Lovins uses the “cutting butter with a chainsaw” metaphor to point out that the US is using high quality electric energy (read chainsaw) when lower quality energy would suffice (read butter knife). This is part of what he refers to as the “hard path.” Cutting butter with a chainsaw (heating water with electricity) is part of the hard path because it is wasteful and inefficient. Therefore electricity should be reserved for end-use needs that specifically require high quality electric energy (lighting, electronics, telecommunications, appliances etc…) and not used as it often is for heating air and water a few degrees and other needs that could be met with low quality energy.

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