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Green Building News

Study: Green Building Codes Don’t Save Energy

A researcher finds that strict building codes in California have failed to lower energy consumption while adding thousands to construction costs

Bigger houses use more energy. This chart from the U.S. Energy Information Administration compares residential energy consumption in houses built before 2000 to those built between 2000 and 2009. Newer houses were more energy-efficient, but an average of 30 percent bigger. Total energy consumption went up.
Image Credit: U.S. Energy Information Administration

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?]

10 Comments

  1. Nate G | | #1

    I'm shocked, shocked
    In other news: people adapt to mandates and requirements to do what they wanted to do anyway.

  2. Mike Collignon | | #2

    Green or energy codes?
    Seems like this article is about energy codes, not green building codes.

  3. Dan Phillips | | #3

    Building codes dictate electronics how?
    Just looking at the graph from the article, it looks like appliances are the biggest increase, while space heating is quite a bit reduced (~10Mbtu) and space cooling is modestly up (~5Mbtu). I wouldn't associate lighting, appliances, and electronics under the jurisdiction of building codes.

    Last I checked my municipality doesn't dictate if I can have my Xbox360 plugged in at the same time as my PS4 and my WiiU, and my cable box, etc.

    Looks to me like the stuff codes can actually impact (space heating & cooling) have moved over all in a positive direction. Or has heating decreased while cooling increased because there are fewer heating degree days and more cooling degree days now than there were in 1978?

  4. Stephen E | | #4

    Energy Codes
    Size matters. A bigger house has larger loads. A smaller house has less loads. Doesn't matter what energy effecient program is out their. For all the good these programs bring (they do) size and behavior is just as important. Energy codes are just one part of what it means to be energy effecient.

    Think a better measure would be total energy usesage divided by the amount of people in a given zone. Some of the smaller houses with R11 insulation might end up being more green than these McMansions that have R40 walls. In the same line of thinking a old van carrying a family might use less gas per person than a Prius with one person. Being green is more wholistic than the individual parts that people try to measure themselves with.

  5. Nick Welch | | #5

    But things might have been
    But things might have been even worse without these codes. There's no way to know.

    If R-11 insulation was still normal, would people still mostly build 1000sqft houses? Would they go without AC? I'm doubtful.

    Just because the policies didn't achieve their stated goal doesn't mean they didn't achieve anything. They very well may have softened the blow of our increasingly gluttonous habits.

  6. Nate G | | #6

    Changing the goalposts
    The classic argument for any failed policy is always, "well, it might have been even worse without this!" That's changing the goalposts. The point was to improve things, not make things less bad then they might have otherwise been. The observation about the differences in the number of heating and cooling degree days between 1978 and now is a very intriguing one that bears investigation. It may be that correcting for that leaves heating and cooling costs virtually unchanged.

    These problem with kinds of policies is that they always fail to take into account human psychology. If someone is living in an inefficient house and spends $2,000 a year heating and cooling it, obviously they're okay with that level of expenditure. If they move into a house that only costs $1,500 to heat and cool, that leaves $500 in their psychological budget for buying unnecessary electronic gadgetry or turning the thermostat to an even more comfortable temperature than before.

  7. Alan B | | #7

    Interpretation is fleeting
    Using one set of data to come to such a broad conclusion is foolish. I'll bet this will be used to argue for inefficiency and wastefulness.
    Is it not funny that energy efficiency is being lambasted as "green". Its amazing how labeling something is one step to making it maligned. I read a poll that something like 60% of Americans were opposed to Obama/Romneycare but a higher percentage were supportive of the Affordable Care Act.
    Efficient building codes have little to do energy consumption, amount of water used or how high the A/C is set to. These are behavioral problems, not "green" ones.

    It is true that saving people money means they will likely spend it inefficiently and mandates the need for things such as fuel efficiency standards and other ways to make sure the actual goal is reached (CO2 reductions, resource shortages, food shortages etc).

    If we had any sense we would focus on finding solutions for the actual problems in the world, instead of pretending they don't exist

  8. Antonio Oliver | | #8

    Not so simple
    I suspect that a good analysis such as the one attempted here is very complicated. But since the comparison was supposed to be for homes built prior to 1978 as opposed to "recently built" homes, I think the chart presented here is off the mark. Show me the same chart comparing homes built recently (perhaps the last 10 years) and homes built in the ten years prior to 1978. By the way, let's make sure the homes built prior to 1978 have not had any energy efficiency upgrades as I suspect most have had. By the way, let's not restrict ourselves to electricity use as Mr. Levinson seems to have done from my reading of the report abstract, but let's look at total energy use instead, especially if the home is not heated with electricity. And while we're considering total energy use, let's be clear that electricity used for heating and/or cooling in many cases may not be the biggest fraction of the total energy used--computers, big screen TVs, etc. As has been pointed out by others, it seems almost impossible to use the energy code as the basis for such a study since so much more electricity use is unconnected from heating and cooling associated energy efficiency today than it was prior to 1978.

  9. Shane Claflin | | #9

    Hydrogen Fuel Cells
    "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 33% increase in size of the dwelling with only a 2% increase in consumption? Sounds pretty good to me!

  10. David Eakin | | #10

    Informed VS Uninformed Decisions
    I am a strong proponent for increasing building codes to increase the durability and energy efficiency of residential shells - because most purchasers have no clue about advanced building science and they purchase very few homes to learn any better (so they blindly trust real estate agents and developer sales reps - another topic entirely). Studying advanced building science and its technical applications is definitely not the norm for most individuals. Universal building codes employing advanced building science protects the unwary buyer.

    Purchasing excess consumer devices or larger residences or adjusting the thermostat so that you can wear shorts any time of the year is an informed, freedom-of-choice decision - it will come at an increased cost. If the cost becomes onerous, you will change your purchasing/living habits.

    If there is a true national energy strategy to reduce energy consumption, the only way for government to achieve that is to increase energy taxes.

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