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The 2000 Watt Society

2000watt.jpgThe "2000 Watt Society" is a radical model of efficient, high-quality living being pushed by the Swiss Council of the Federal Institute of Technology. Worldwide average energy consumption per capita is about 17,500 kilowatt hours, working out to a continuous consumption of 2000 watts. But as we all know, that per capita consumption is not evenly distributed. Switzerland, efficient for Europe, uses around 5000 watts per capita; Europe as a whole, about 6000 watts per capita. Developing nations use substantially less -- the average for Africa as a whole is about 500 watts per capita. The US, conversely, runs about 12,000 watts per person. The Swiss Council wants to move the nation as a whole towards a 2000 watts per person goal, not by cutting back on the Swiss standard of living, but by dramatically improving the energy efficiency of all aspects of life.

A document entitled "Smarter Living" (PDF) lays out the details of the agenda:

In the envisioned 2000-watt society, the quality of life will not suffer at all. On the contrary, aspects such as safety and health, comfort and the development of the individual will in fact improve, and income is expected to rise by around 60 percent over the next fifty years. However, ambitious goals call for decisive action in a variety of areas, e.g. improving materials and increasing the level of energy efficiency; substituting fossil fuels with renewable forms of energy and reducing the CO2 intensity of other utilised fossil fuels; adopting a smarter way of life and rethinking current business practices, including increasing the level of professionalism in the areas of planning and investment and the operation of buildings and installations.

Smarter Living is a good introduction to the variety of high-efficiency options available with current and near-term technologies. Most interesting (to me) was the chart -- reproduced below -- comparing overall energy consumption of a Swiss family of 4 at present with one in the 2000 Watt world. Efficiency improvements are not evenly distributed, and in some areas (such as air travel) see very little change. Much more significant are improvements in infrastructure and consumer goods/food. The greatest increase in efficiency is in the unfortunately ambiguous "living and working" category, which appears to cover non-consumer goods and services.

The Novatlantis program, a Swiss public-private partnership spearheads the 2000 Watt project,, constructing scenarios of what it would be like to live in such a world, offering an energy use/CO2 production calculator, and organizing a series of energy, mobility, and construction projects to pilot some of their high-efficiency ideas.

The Basel region has been selected as an experimental urban setting for the 2000 Watt project. Initially focusing on improvements to transportation efficiency, the project is now shifting its attention to the "application of new building technology... in individual building projects..."


Comments (15)

Luke Opperman:

People tend to look at me funny when I dream about ideas like this - that we can live without sacrificing our standards of living (luxury), in a way that everyone in the world could enjoy the same luxuries. It's going to be a lot of change, and there will always be richer vs poorer, but it's not outlandish. The positive comforts and expectations of today's middle class living are not incompatible with a sustainable, global vision - just how we're getting those benefits today.

Raise the average to today's best.

But what are the 'luxuries' that will probably be lost in such a transition? Many aspects of suburban living still seems hard to square with these dreams, but I'll have to think about what real comforts these aspects provide, and come up with a convincing argument for getting the same personal benefits in a way that is sustainable for many many more people in the world.

(Individual transportation, large homes, individual lawns and private space are the big ones that come to mind as difficult. Am I wrong? I guess you can have those things in areas with the space for it, so long as your energy/environmental impact is the same as an efficient urban dweller. But then they're not part of the vision for all people to have as a basic level.)

Luke Opperman:

I guess just to add, I'm not sure those private/big things _have_ to be part of the dream, but I think it is important to include people currently living in such high-middle class situations in the conversion - not so much for the impact it will have on the overall numbers, but to get them onboard for change. "Look, you can live as you live today or better, but in a much more efficient and worldchanging way." I would be worried about solutions that create a big divide, where urban areas see great progress towards sustainability but non-urban areas continue as today, without seeing the need or the benefits of switching.

Maybe the 'market' would take care of this, if sustainable options make a person's life dramatically better and cheaper as I hope they do. But if it's only slightly better/cheaper at the individual level, but massively important at the society/global level, need much broader political buy-in. In which case it is piece-by-piece, but must be broadly implementable across living conditions and current status levels.

This doesn't seem hard. We're a household of two, with an adjacent architecture office worked in by two. We pay one electric bill; our average daily electricity consumption is just under 8 kwh/day. With better attention to plug loads, and once we upgrade our refrigerator, we'll do better - our target is 5 to 6 kwh/day. 2000 watts would suit us fine. We enjoy a great lifestyle, have many amenities, and don't feel the least bit deprived. We're not special; many of our neighbors could do as we have, if they put their minds to it. I think we should aim for a 750 watt society. That would be a fun challenge!


Mr. Foley sounds a lot like me talking about my fuel economy obsession. I tell people how I don't speed, I coast as much as possible, I don't start quickly and (shh) I turn my car off at long lights.

The problem is that while they see the logic in such behavior, their emotions and egos are satisfied by speeding around, and they make excuses about how they'll be late if they only drive the speed limit. (To which I reply "I'm not late for anything. I just leave earlier.")

The problem of selling a 2000 watt society isn't explaining the logic behind it, it's satisfying people's egos, quieting their fears, and making it "cool" to save energy. However, our culture of dominance (as I like to call it) seems to make wastefulness a virtue.


It seems like they are using watts as a standard unit across all energy uses, so while "watt" often makes one think "electricity" (bill), they've also converted other non-electric energy uses to watts. So once you throw charging an electric car into the mix, convert liquid fuels to wattage, or calculate the energy of public transit, etc your energy usage goes a bit beyond the utility bill.

I do like seeing everything figured under one measurement system.

Lets keep working toward that bright green, effecient, and enjoyable lifestyle that everyone would want.


Interesting way to frame the goal, though you get in to difficulties by putting it into watts as a unit, since the conversion factor will be vastly different for primary enery versus end-use, since there's a large average conversion loss of about 2/3 across all sectors.

ref. http://www.energycodes.gov/implement/pdfs/res_energy_consumption_rpt.pdf

But if you put it in BTU terms based on per cpaita primary energy consumption, then you lose people in the unfamiliar terminology.

Also, using the site/end-use conversion, I think US per capita is more like 11,300 than 12,000, since we've had a flattening of consumption even under increasing population, especially the past few years.

The other thing that this framework misses is that it's not a matter of gross energy consumption but rather the mix of fuels that are consumed in the process, and their impact on the environment, the economy, and even aesthetics. For example, is it better to have a 2,000 watt society running on coal and oil, or a 5,000 watt society running on wind, solar, and hydrogen?

The last thing that kind of gets at me is this notion of "everyone gets their allotment of consumption" - which psychologically comes out to feel like rationing and assumes that we all should consume an equal amount of resources, regardless of the "output" of our lives in terms of our contribution to the world.

It gets back to issues like busting on the pseudo-"jet-setter" lifestyle of a guy like Amory Lovins, which David and I have discussed before. I for one am happy to see a guy like him consuming more resources than the average human, since he puts that consumption to a use which completely offsets his personal "overconsumption" by almost incalculable factors. There's no way he would have the impact he does if he just sat at home and made sure he made as little material impact as possible with his individual consumption.

On a personal note, when I first moved back to Japan for a fellowship to study comparative energy policy, I had about 3 months to spend experimenting before the new school term started in April. So, new to studying energy, I went about seeing how little I could consume in a month.

My main room was a 4 1/2 mat space (about 81 sq ft), with a small entrance, hallway/kitchen, "unit bath" and a two-foot deep veranda facing generally east. Tokyo climate, so chilly but not freezing (about like DC), so I first stopped using a fridge and instead made a makeshift white box that was shaded on the veranda. I also timed curtain openings and closings to maximize passive solar and daylighting. It helped that the building was pretty much solid concrete, with a concrete slab also behind the head of my sleeping space -- so heat retention was pretty good, offset that my north wall was at the end of the building instead of an interior wall.

I couldn't meter the gas for the shower/bath, kitchen sink, and little two-burner stove, but my electricity consumption for February under those conditions (and I pretty much froze my ass off) was 29 kWh for the month, which was a personal "43 watt society", at least in terms of household electricity consumption.

To give some context, the average household in Japan consumed about 240 kWh/month at the time, and is about 290 kWh now. Also, I found out that the average vending machine used as much electricity as the average household, and there were about 5 or 6 million of them.

I guess the point of all that is to show that one can ratchet personal energy consumption way down (if you're "lucky" to have some of the design features of that little apartment and willing to suffer pretty heavily), but the fact is that you might still be embedded in a wasteful system that may have 6 million vending machines cranking away and keeping a handful of nuclear power plants humming by themselves. Also, when you step out of your little world that you can conceivably control, you use transportations systems, other building and their systems, as well as the material use that goes in to supporting the whole economy - from food production, distribution, preparation, and packaging, to infrastructure consumption and maintenance, and so forth.

If you take a macro number (like primary energy consumption) and you slice it into 300 million pieces, most people, if they can even make sense of a unit like watts, will think, "1,500 kWh per month? My electricity bill is way lower than that - and I've got a big family!" Or something like that. The point that the "2000 Watt" goal includes all energy consumption probably just won't translate to the average person. Factor in this lack of awareness about one's real material impact, plus the sense that we should all have equal amounts of material impact, and I'm puzzled as to what end this framework would specifically serve, since wonks and geeks can obviously do without putting these things into "watts per capita" as a conceptual framework.

FWIW, household electricity consumption in the US is about 4% of primary energy consumption, so if one took my "43 Watt society" number for household electricity consumption, at an equal level of efficiency across all sectors, and using US numbers as a base, that would translate into a total "1,075 Watt" personal number.

I think Paul has just read my mind. He has said the truth so candidly, it's amazing.

I too truly believe that we have to build in an image of it being 'cool' and 'chic' to save energy and to use it with care and caution. After all like water, it's a valuable resource which must be utilized with a lethal combination of economy and pragmatism.

Armand Rousso

I read the article again, and realize my earlier post was sloppy - sorry. Of course we're looking at total energy consumption, not just electricity. I ran the numbers for our transport, space and water heating, cooking, and household electricity. We're not as virtuous as I claimed, and the problem is harder than first appears. Not including the energy embodied in the things we consume, or the things we discard, we're a "5000 watt" household. Transport is our largest appetite, despite driving a 50 mile-per-gallon (21.3 km/liter) Prius and a 35 mpg (15 km/liter) Ford. Not bad for Americans, I guess, but still vast room for improvement. It's times like these when I feel the frustration of being "embedded in a system."

Joseph, I agree with everything you wrote, including about Amory. But he's a special case, not readily duplicated. I lack his brains and eloquence, so I see my contribution more as the "stay at home" variety.


Hey David, while you're at it you might like to personally adopt the Kyoto Treaty (& bring 54 people on board to put it in effect!):


While I thank Armand for his kind words, I also believe it's an even more visceral reaction than being "cool." There are a lot of people who don't think they're 'cool' and yet still look down on environmentalism. It's a cultural meme that has been implanted, not to mention that a 2000 watt lifestyle takes a lot of thought to make happen. Or, instead of thought, it'll take political will. However, you'll then see people complaining about how the government is unfairly regulating business by, say, making all vending machines non-refrigerated.


At issue realy is the fact that people feel and rightly so that if they earn a good living they can spend the money where they want buying what they want and in this case alot of people wana buy power so they can enjoy a big tv with realy good sound. So they can live in a sunny clime without the downside of 100-110 degree days. So they can live in a very nice place while working in a a realy profitable job.. rarely do those come in the same place;/ So they can live away from the bustle of the city while working in it. So they can shop at the store 50 miles way because it has better stuff. So they can play quake 4 on a 20 inch monitor using a massive monster machine. So they can host a website about worldchanging. So they can live where the good life is work where the money is and play where the world is a wonder.

Mitchell Covell:


Units are confusing in this discussion. The Kwh (kilowatt hour) is a unit of energy while the W (watt) is a unit of power.
A W is a J/S (the joule is the SI base unit of energy) and is used to express a rate of energy use/consumption/production etc.
A kilowatt hour is a kilowatt (1000 watts) multiplied by 3600 seconds. The seconds cancel leaving a unit of Megajoules (a million joules) which is of course a unit of energy.

A statistic such as 17500 kwh per capita needs to be expressed with a complete context. Is this per day, week, month or per year? By working backwards from the stated equivalent of a continuous rate of power consumption of 2000 watts I was able to figure that the amount expressed as kwh per capita was for one year. However, this SHOULD be explicity stated.

An important topic but but one that needs to be attended by a clear and complete explanation of the relevant units. Most people are not science teachers or engineers.



One small correction...

My apologies all. I neglected to include the mantissa in the unit conversion from kwh to megajoules. 1 kwh = 3.6 megajoules.

Comments and further corrections welcome!

Mitch :o)


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