Is it time to reevaluate substituting energy for labor?

By Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President
Illinois Renewable Energy Association

When we were growing up farmers milked by hand, poured the milk into metal cans and brought it to a plant for pasteurizing where it was transferred into bottles to be sold to customers. A milkman brought it to our homes via a truck which contained ice to keep it fresh. Our mothers, who were home, took the milk into the house and put it into the refrigerator to keep it fresh.

Home delivery ceased and the milk was brought to nearby stores, placed in refrigerated cases and sold. Refrigeration replaced the ice and two forms of work were eliminated – home delivery and supplying ice. Eliminating jobs, increasing energy consumption and speeding up the delivery of milk improved the efficiency of the new distribution system.

We spent a month in Germany a number of years ago and were surprised by the presence of an in-town dairy. Milk sold there came from cows kept in the lower level of the building. The cows were milked by hand as some customers preferred. Feed was brought into town on a tractor-pulled wagon and the cows’ waste in turn was carried out to the nearby farm. The process was slow and labor intensive but the milk was fresh.

Milk was also available from a store in the same town but it was placed on a shelf like any other liquid. Once opened it had to be kept in a refrigerator. The milk had been flash heated at high temperatures which allowed it to be stored without refrigeration. Once again energy accelerated the speed of processing and decreased the use of labor.

A Wisconsin firm has recently developed a process to reduce the water content of milk reducing its volume and shipping cost. It can be stored without refrigeration saving electricity. Water will be added to the concentrated milk by a drink dispenser before its consumption. Again efficiency will be improved and energy will likely displace human labor.

An interesting summary of the changes in the milk industry was developed by Nate Hagens, a former hedge fund manager: As efficiency in milking went up, more energy was used, higher wages were paid, and less time was spent with a cow. Milking by hand took 30 minutes, used 0 kW, and cost $3 for the labor. Milking with a machine took 15 minutes, used 300 kW, and cost $5 for the labor. Milking with an improved machine took 3 minutes, used 700 kW, and cost $15 for the labor.

The efficiency gains in industry are viewed as progress but our energy system remains based on fossil fuel consumption which has costly adverse impacts. Hagen reported a study indicating that the cost of electricity produced from coal would rise from 5¢/kWh to 38¢/kWh if its environmental impacts were included. He indicates that as many as 20 of the world’s largest industries would lose money if they had to incorporate their environmental costs.

Hagens doubts governments will force the full costs of environmental damages on these industries and suggests individuals need to implement actions consistent with a less energy intensive lifestyle. Societal incentives for substituting energy for labor may need to be restructured given the adverse impacts energy consumption has on our society, the planet and ourselves.

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