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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…

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  1. user-626934 | | #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. 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. wolfworks | | #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. Altruen | | #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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