Systematising Energy Saving at the RAND Corporation in the 1970s
Thomas Turnbull (Max Planck Institute)
In the nineteen-seventies, archetypal Cold War think tank the RAND Corporation turned its expertise toward the problem of energy demand. The organisation’s researchers realised that utility-led forecasting contributed to growth in electricity use. By developing an independent forecasting method, they reconceptualised the various components of society’s fuel consumption in general systemic terms. This approach was heavily informed by cybernetics. It was suggested that demand reducing feedback loops could be introduced into the system of energy use, iteratively reducing demand over time and with minimal impact on welfare and economic growth. This work marked a conceptual extension of previous attempts by electrical engineers to use the power grid as means of resource conservation. Whereas power engineers had restricted their claims to grid mechanics, RAND researchers suggested the entire energy system could be reconfigured as a sociotechnical means of conservation. This idea followed in an intellectual tradition which considered the grid as a networked computational system, while also reflecting a more recent cybernetic preoccupation with the relation between energy and information. In revisiting the history of the now common-sense notion of energy saving, this paper adds historical depth to current attempts to limit greenhouse gas emissions through increased efficiency of energy use.
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