Building codes that require energy efficient features haven’t done anything to lower energy consumption in California despite adding thousands of dollars to the purchase price of a new house, according to a new report.
In a paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Arik Levinson said that energy codes enacted in California in 1978 were supposed to reduce energy consumption by 80 percent.
But homes built since then actually don’t use less energy, even though the codes have added thousands of dollars to the cost of construction.
The full text of Levinson’s paper is behind a pay wall, but it was summarized by the Washington Examiner.
Levinson, an economics professor at Georgetown University, weighed a variety of factors in analyzing energy use, the Examiner said, to avoid skewing the results.
“Levinson did not only correct for issues that would bias results toward showing how ineffective green energy codes are,” the newspaper said. “Recently built homes actually use more electricity than homes built prior to the 1978 building codes, but these homes are larger, built in warmer climates and have more residents than the pre-1978 homes.”
He concluded there’s “no evidence that homes constructed since California instituted its building energy codes use less electricity today than homes built before the codes came into effect.”
Is this the Jevons Paradox?
More efficiency but more consumption? It turns out that’s not a new idea.
GBA senior editor Martin Holladay wrote about this topic back in 2009, in a blog titled The Jevons Paradox. The phenomenon was originally described in The Coal Question, a book published in 1865 by an economist named William Stanley Jevons.
“It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption,” Jevons wrote. “The very contrary is the truth.”
Holladay wrote that the Jevons Paradox is evident in any number of ways: more efficient refrigerators leading to bigger refrigerators, better fuel economy prompting drivers to drive more miles, better windows and insulation techniques pushing homeowners to build bigger houses.
Evidence of the Jevons Paradox at work can be found in data collected by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The agency reported last year that newer homes in the U.S. are nearly one-third bigger than they used to be while using 2 percent more total energy — a confirmation of sorts that increased efficiencies can lead not to lower consumption but to bigger dwellings.
[Editor’s note: Arik Levinson was interviewed on the Freakonomics radio show. Here is a link to the podcast: How Efficient Is Energy Efficiency?]