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Musings of an Energy Nerd

Getting More Efficient, But Using More Energy

How the Rebound Effect undermines energy conservation

Residential electricity use keeps rising. The graph shows the rise in per-capita expenditures for residential energy. [Source: "Annual Energy Review 2002," U.S. Department of Energy]
Image Credit: U.S. Department of Energy

Back in the 1970s, energy activists promoted conservation. The attractiveness of conservation waned, however, as Americans began to associate the word with sacrifice. Public relations experts responded by promoting something sexier than conservation: energy efficiency.

Everybody loves energy efficiency. A Web page formerly maintained by the Rocky Mountain Institute explained energy efficiency this way: “Savings of this sort don’t mean freezing in the dark, doing less, doing worse, or doing without. Energy efficiency is not conservation by curtailment. It means doing more with less, enjoying more comfort, providing the same or better services, but doing it a little smarter.”

There’s only one problem with the Rocky Mountain Institute’s enticing vision: efficiency improvements aren’t working. While homes and appliances are increasingly efficient, our homes use more electricity every year.

A group of authors — Jeffrey Harris, Rick Diamond, Maithili Iyer, Christopher Payne, and Carl Blumstein — discuss this paradox in a paper, “Don’t Supersize Me!” The authors write, “Despite notable gains in the energy efficiency of building envelopes, lighting, HVAC, and plug loads, total primary energy use has increased over 30% in US residential buildings since 1978, and more than 65% in commercial buildings. The growth in buildings sector energy has been significantly faster than for all US energy (25%).”

Efficiency improvements lower the cost of energy required to perform a unit of work — and that’s a problem, since lower energy costs allow consumers to spend more money for larger houses, more refrigerators, more televisions, and more frequent (and longer) showers. The result: efficiency improvements often result in higher levels of energy use.

Reviving a focus on conservation

A large energy-efficient house often uses much more energy than a small house that isn’t energy-efficient. Now that we are establishing new national goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it’s time to return to our roots and encourage energy conservation.

One of the “Supersize” paper’s authors, Christopher Payne, is an energy analyst for the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Payne posed the following rhetorical question: “If you accept the idea that there are limits to total consumption — because of limits to the total amount of CO2 we can produce — what does that mean in terms of our energy policies?”

According to the “Supersize” authors, “In many cases policy-makers seem confused (or deliberately vague) about efficiency versus conservation, perhaps in the hope that efficiency improvements will be powerful enough to reduce absolute energy use and carbon without any constraint on consumers or consumption.”

Efficiency programs are sometimes counterproductive

The “Supersize” authors point out that some characteristics of energy-efficiency programs undermine the principle of conservation. They write, “A study by Prahl (2000) suggests that the Home Energy Rating System (HERS) used by Energy Star Homes and a number of utility-sponsored programs requires smaller houses to have higher levels of energy efficiency, component by component, in order to achieve the same HERS score as a larger house. Holding constant domestic water heating efficiency, the study found that in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a typical 1,537-square-foot home would need to install a furnace rated at 96% Annual Fuel Use Efficiency (AFUE) to achieve a HERS score of 86” — the authors are referring here to the old HERS scoring system, not the new HERS index — “whereas a 5,564-square-foot house would require only an 80% AFUE furnace. Building a bigger house efficiently will typically ‘save’ more energy than building a smaller house at the same efficiency level, but the larger house will still consume more energy.”

In a letter to the editor of Home Energy magazine (July/August 2009), Li Ling Young makes the same point. “The HERS index is plagued with this simple and damning flaw: Scoring is partially based on the size of the building. Larger homes that use more energy can score as well as or better than smaller homes that use less energy.”

The Rebound Effect

One energy expert — Andrew Rudin, a consultant from Melrose Park, Pennsylvania — has concluded that efforts to improve energy efficiency often backfire. In a 2004 paper, “How Greater Efficiency Increases Resource Use,” Rudin argued, “Increasing the efficiency of a process usually lowers costs and increases consumption.” The mechanism documented by Rudin — whereby energy efficiency improvements lead to increased energy use — is called the “rebound” or “snapback” effect. (For an in-depth discussion of the rebound effect, see The Jevons Paradox.)

Reviewing the historical record, Rudin unearthed countless predictions that efficiency improvements would lead to lower consumption. Yet “in each example — gasoline, paper, and electric consumption — U.S. per capita consumption increased as consumption became more efficient.”

As we face a climate-change crisis, many Americans are questioning fundamental assumptions about economic development. “One of the problems of the efforts over the last 25 years to promote energy efficiency is that we haven’t necessarily given people everything they want,” said Payne. “Some of the growth of the green building movement reflects that. Too often we tend to frame the debate in terms of giving something up, as if we are required to be less comfortable — ‘If I live in a tiny home that will make me less happy instead of in an enormous home which makes me more happy.’ Some people are now saying, ‘Wait a minute — this was supposed to make me feel happier, but I don’t feel happier.’ ”

Rehabilitating the idea of sacrifice

It wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if our current environmental crisis requires us to give something up or make sacrifices. “Energy conservation does not always involve sacrifice, as President Carter’s sweater implied, but in some cases it may — just as other important personal and collective goals sometimes call for sacrifice: sending kids to college, caring for an aging parent, reducing roadside litter, or countering terrorism,” the “Supersize” authors wrote. “The question is how much sacrifice is necessary, and how much we are willing to accept. Slower growth in energy consumption can mean real sacrifice for many in the developing world who still await access to electricity or clean water, but for most of us fortunate enough to live in the U.S. it may mean a modest shift in our aspirations, deciding to be satisfied with sufficiency rather than pursuing excess.”

Last week’s blog: “Tackling the Plug Load Problem.”


  1. User avater
    John Semmelhack | | #1

    What about California?
    Over the 30-year period between 1976 and 2006, California's per capita primary energy use in the residential sector has GONE DOWN by almost 25%. Certainly California is no stranger to McMansions (perhaps they invented them out there?). Still, they are doing some things right...leadership at all levels of government, strong building codes that mandate efficiency, good incentives to promote energy efficiency, and retail energy price incentives (i.e. "high utility rates") that encourage conservation.

  2. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #2

    California leads the way
    You're right — California has succeeded in implementing energy policies and programs that have limited the growth of (and in some cases reduced) residential energy use. That's good. I think other states should definitely look at the California model for useful lessons.

    That said, many regions of California have a relatively mild climate that makes it easier to reduce energy use than harsher climates. But California's Title 24 is a trail-blazing energy code that deserves study by other states.

  3. Jamie Wolf | | #3

    "deciding to be satisfied with sufficiency"
    I want to thank you for planting this semantic shift - from "efficiency" to "sufficiency" - I'm thinking hard about that difference and what it implies.

    Strangely, a search on sufficiency led me to Thailand's somewhat inscrutable "sufficiency economy" - based on buddhist thought but emerging from a totalitarian government - Hmmm!

    More to the point, wikipedia redirected that search to the concept of localism, and now that aha moment - sufficiency is what the emergent local initiatives promote.

    Thanks again for the push in this direction.

  4. Julian Miller | | #4

    Market forces and consumer habits
    Something a lot of people overlook when talking about sustainability and efficiency are the market factors and the environment around what is going on. Its foolish to isolated efficiency and consumption and look beyond to the nature of markets and society in general. Let me paint a picture with a simple example:

    Lets assume I like beer. The producers of one of the beers I enjoy drinking, make improvements in the efficiency with which they produce their product. The bottom line of this occurrence will lead to both increased profits on the part of the beer manufacturer, and a lower price for me the consumer. Lets say that in this hypothetical example that the increase in efficiency on the part of the brewer leads to a lowering of the price of their beer to me by 20%. As a typical consumer my budgetary allotment to drink the same amount of beer has now dropped by 20%, this means that for the same amount of money I can drink 20% more beer. Hooray Beer! So now not only will I drink 20% more beer because I can now afford it, but I will also consume less wine and hard liquor among other substitutes, because it is more economical for me to drink beer instead.

    This is one of the problems associated with growing efficiency. Energy efficiency alone will not accomplish much but a growing sense of conservation and reinforcement of it will increase the overall effectiveness of such measures. So if we turn back to my example:

    So lets say this increase in efficiency in production still occurred, but at the same time studies showing the various negative effects of mass consumption of beer were pushed on the consumer and were effectively reinforced. The behavior of the consumer is now modified leading to less consumption despite a lower cost caused by greater efficiency.

  5. Pat Murphy | | #5

    This topic is covered extensively in Thomas Princen's book - The Logic of Sufficiency and Avner Offer's book - The Challenge of Affluence.

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