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…