“The Efficiency Dilemma”: Does Saving More Mean Using More?

If our machines use less energy, will we save energy? Or will we just use the machines more?

That’s the engaging question explored in the 6-page story “The Efficiency Dilemma” by David Owen in the Dec 20 & Dec 27, 2010, issue of the New Yorker.

Owen explains that many people regard energy efficiency as a so-called “fifth fuel” after coal, petroleum, nuclear power, and renewables: it’s “seen as a cost-free tool for accelerating the transition to a green-energy economy.”

He cites Amory Lovins, the entrepreneur and strategist, as one of the leaders of the resource efficiency movement. Owen notes that Lovins has referred to the use of more expensive compact fluorescent bulbs as “not a free lunch, but a lunch you’re paid to eat” since those bulbs can save enough electricity to offset their price. (See MIT SMR’s October 2009 interview with Lovins for a detailed look at his ideas.)

Owen argues, though, that “the issue may be less straightforward than it seems.” Refrigerators are a good example of the problem: while they have become much more energy efficient in the past 35 years, the global market for refrigeration has not just kept pace but exploded, and “the world’s total energy consumption and carbon output, including the parts directly attributable to keeping things cold, have climbed.”

Economists who see this correlation as not coincidental call this it the Jevons paradox. It’s the idea that improvements in energy efficiency do not lead to lower energy use but to an over-all increase. The concept is named after William Stanley Jevons, who made the argument in 1865 in his book “The Coal Question.”

Think about your own energy use: if you drive a car, it’s probably more efficient today than it was 10 years ago. But do you drive the same or less than you did 10 years ago? For me, the efficiency mostly means that my car is cheaper to use. (On the other hand, raise the price of my gas to $5 a gallon, and my use will go down. I saw that when prices spiked in the U.S. a few years back.)

Jumping to the end of the piece, here’s part of Owen’s conclusion:

“Decreasing reliance on fossil fuels is a pressing global need. The question is whether improving efficiency, rather than reducing total consumption, can possibly bring about the desired result. [U.S. Secretary of Energy] Steve Chu told me that one of the appealing features of the efficiency discussions at the Clean Energy Ministerial was that they were never contentious. ‘It was the opposite,’ he said. ‘No one was debating about who’s responsible, and there was no finger-pointing or trying to lay blame.’ This seems encouraging in one way but dismaying in another. Given the known level of global disagreement about energy and climate matters, shouldn’t there have been some angry table-banging? Advocating efficiency involves virtually no political risk — unlike measures that do call for sacrifice, such as capping emissions or putting a price on carbon or increasing energy taxes.”

For more on this topic, take a look at the Fast Company story “Jevons’ Paradox and the Perils of Efficient Energy Use,” which came out nine months before the New Yorker piece, in the March 2010 issue.

1 Comment On: “The Efficiency Dilemma”: Does Saving More Mean Using More?

  • Cobb | January 10, 2011

    I’ve often wondered about people who replace all the lights in their homes with high efficiency bulbs and then leave the lights on all the time because “they use so much less electricity”

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