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How energy efficiency increases energy consumption
March 8, 2011 8:50 PM   Subscribe

Does improving energy efficiency end up increasing energy consumption? It's a paradox first pointed out by William Stanley Jevons in the 19th century. . The rebound effects are complex, hard to measure and vary according to sector, technologies and end-user behavior (full report here)

See also the (improbably-named) Khazzoom-Brookes Postulate.
posted by storybored (33 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
There was a big magazine article about this recently, maybe in the Atlantic? At least in my own life, it's probably true. I buy ultra high-efficiency appliances... but I have a lot more of them than people 70 years ago owned, and my high-efficiency central heating probably consumes a lot more energy than it would take to heat only one room.

At some point, if we are serious about not wanting to live on a planet that looks like a decaying parking lot, we are going to have to make actual sacrifices. Not fake ones, like buying new shoes made with 2% post-consumer waste, but actual, honest-to-god sacrifices of things we value and enjoy.
posted by Forktine at 8:56 PM on March 8, 2011 [4 favorites]


Interesting that there isn't more clout over this issue.

For my graduate thesis, we developed an energy efficient design technique for digital circuits. Our most common question when we presented the topic at conferences was, "what are the overheads of using your technique?", with respect to _not_ using the technique. In other words, do the advantages outweigh the drawbacks? Here's hoping that designers of "energy efficient" cars and appliances are asking themselves the same question.
posted by mateja at 8:58 PM on March 8, 2011


Ah, the article I was remembering was in the New Yorker, not the Atlantic.
posted by Forktine at 9:03 PM on March 8, 2011


Its one thing to say people will drive a little bit more (or feel less bad about driving) in a more efficient car, but there is some upper bound - if my car got twice the MPG, I'm not going to drive twice the miles per week, I have stuff to do like work, run errands, etc. If I buy a electric car or plug-in hybrid that gets 70-100 MPGe (equivalent), I wont drive three times as much as my 23MPG car now.

One consequence of moving everyone to electric cars and even to automated self driving cars is that we may see more cars and more vehicle miles traveled because if a car can drive itself, then I can go tell it to pick my kid up from soccer practice instead of me doing it. It it worth it? In terms of productivity gains, reduced accidents, etc, hell yes its worth it.

That said, there should not be continually improving standards - its like NCLB. If you demand improvements every year, at some point you're going to venture into areas where the product has reached a mature state. A school achieving 99% proficiency cant really get better than that, nor should the teachers be fired for not improving. I believe there was a case in Texas recently where an ultra-high achieving school was in trouble for not improving.
posted by SirOmega at 9:07 PM on March 8, 2011


I remember once seeing the future on display at Disneyland, and the clear message was that all those lovely appliances would usher in the new leisure. Well, maybe for some.
posted by Brian B. at 9:16 PM on March 8, 2011


I have a couple of lights in the house (among most) that are now CFLs. I keep them on as nightlights now. We could argue about energy savings and increased mercury in the environment on this and future threads...

But the fact remains that industry uses the vast majority of energy - and water! - while feel-good environmentalism at the household level has a minuscule impact on our big problems.

And to second the sentiments of SirOmega above, I work in a very high-achieving (arts) school in a public district. Unfortunately, growth, given the problems at most of our schools, has become the measurement of our worth as a school. Thus, when one compares our school to others, one sees a lot of red marks, meaning we have not improved in certain testable areas. (This has an effect on our take-home salaries, as well as appearing BAD in terms of BIG RED bars in certain measurable aspects of achievement. Not absolute achievement, but relative achievement.) This is a total thread derail, and for this I apologize.

But the parallel problem is instructive: are ya goin' to look good, or actually make a difference?
posted by kozad at 9:24 PM on March 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


but actual, honest-to-god sacrifices of things we value and enjoy

The real problem is not so much that the privileged west will have to give up something. It's that we can't deny some or all of that same privilege to the billions of people in the developing world. Finding a way for all 8 billion people to enjoy a standard of living approaching what we enjoy in the west today is the true challenge of our times. Energy efficiency is fine, but it's only one small part of a terribly difficult problem to solve.
posted by Long Way To Go at 9:26 PM on March 8, 2011


Oh My God. Daniel Khazzoom has the best name ever.
posted by schmod at 9:26 PM on March 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


if a car can drive itself, then I can go tell it to pick my kid up from soccer practice instead of me doing it

This is commonly referred to as "taking the bus".
posted by bradbane at 9:30 PM on March 8, 2011 [16 favorites]


For transportation, I think the single best thing that could be done would be to impose a maximum weight for any passenger car or truck. That would drive innovation and would be the single greatest increase in efficiency we could get.
posted by maxwelton at 9:40 PM on March 8, 2011


"while feel-good environmentalism at the household level has a minuscule impact on our big problems."

Household-level environmentalism is making a significant impact in that it's getting industries to take notice and follow suit. I hope.
posted by aniola at 9:43 PM on March 8, 2011


impose a maximum weight for any passenger car or truck.

Did you leave out a comma in there?

I don't see a paradox with the increased consumption. Suppose 4 or 5 high school kids want to hang out on a Saturday night -- they have no where else to go, and it only costs a few bucks, so why not get on route 80 and drive straight to the Ohio border, turn around and drive back home? Al's older brother Lou likes to drive, his van is comfortable and roomy, and he works at a record store, so he has a great collection of eight tracks and few extra dollars.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:59 PM on March 8, 2011


I have worried about something like this for a while. Imagine for a moment that the problem of nuclear fusion is solved, and we have all the energy we need for the cost of simple water. How great would that be?

It would be terrible. Water is a substance we desperately need to survive. 70% of the planet is covered with it and other than common minerals it may be the most available resource we have, but that doesn't make it any more limited than oil or plutonium. Energy is a hard-limited resource; we can always find a use for more. If industry is told that there is now an inexhaustible source of it they will immediately abandon all efforts to conserve it, and it won't be a vast amount of time until energy becomes hard to get again, only this time we'll also have used up a sizable portion of our planet's water, which is just about the worst ecological disaster I could name other than maybe the sun turning into a red giant.

Energy consumption ramps up to meet supply. If supply seems inexhaustible, industrial consumption grows until it doesn't seem inexhaustible anymore.

Does this seem like fear-mongering? I have to admit, to me it does seem like that, but it doesn't change the fact that I think it would happen. I hope someone proves me wrong on this.
posted by JHarris at 10:00 PM on March 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


I wont drive three times as much as my 23MPG car now.

That's true, but with the money you save on gas, you'll buy a big-screen TV for your house. The point is that efficiency saves us money, which then gets spent on other energy-consuming things. So the trick is not just to make consumption more efficient - which is economically identical to lowering the cost per unit of consumption - but in ensuring that the energy we consume is produced sustainably.

At some point, if we are serious about not wanting to live on a planet that looks like a decaying parking lot, we are going to have to make actual sacrifices. Not fake ones, like buying new shoes made with 2% post-consumer waste, but actual, honest-to-god sacrifices of things we value and enjoy.

Well, the CEO of the UK's gird operator is saying that widespread use of wind power is going to make Britain's electricity system unreliable, so we'll find out in a decade or so whether Britons are willing to live like Indians in order to save a few polar bears. My money would be on the British coming to their senses before then and turfing any government so stupid as to impoverish their own public with unreliable electricity. People simply won't agree to live like that. And that's as it should be - all this doomsaying about how we're going to have to live like monks or face the apocalypse totally discounts the value of human ingenuity. We should demand that our standard of living continue to rise while we find more sustainable ways of living - it's what will spur real innovation and investment in sensible green power, like nuclear, rather than environmentalist-wet-dream projects, like wind and solar.
posted by Dasein at 10:02 PM on March 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


maxwelton: "For transportation, I think the single best thing that could be done would be to impose a maximum weight for any passenger car or truck. That would drive innovation and would be the single greatest increase in efficiency we could get"

Commercial trucks are weight limited in the US. That limit works out to be about 80,000 lbs GVWR for your average semi. Usually, about 44,000 pounds of that is cargo; the rest of the weight is the tractor and the structure necessary to move the cargo.

There are a lot more ways to change the equations- rail is hugely more energy-efficient than road transportation. I hold a vision in my head of autonomous electric rail cars shuffling from city to city with freight pods, controlled by the physical equivalent of internet routers that treat the freight cars as packets. Railroad capacity is expensive to build but hugely utilitarian on a cost per mile moved basis. Autonomous because driving a long distance truck is soul-crushing work of the most inhumane kind, and there's no decision made by a driver that can't be made better and faster by a computer; Electric because electricity is the most fungible power, generated by fossil fuels, gas, nuclear, solar, tidal, geothermal, and possibly other ways we haven't thought of yet; and rail for efficiency, and the fact that the technology is so mature that the reliability factor is very close to unity.

And I'd move the whole shooting match underground. Who wants to see the freight being moved? Also on the plus side, weather delays in freight transport cease to be a factor.
posted by pjern at 10:09 PM on March 8, 2011


This gives me a brilliant idea. I will design and sell products so inefficient that no-one will use them because their electricity bills would be too high. Decreasing efficiency will thus decrease energy consumption. Global warming = solved!
posted by PercussivePaul at 10:20 PM on March 8, 2011


One fairly obvious example is that the increased efficiency of automobile engines has been applied not to increasing mileage but increasing power. In 1980 a Honda Accord got 30mpg and had 94hp. Today a Honda Accord gets 30mpg and has 190hp.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:20 PM on March 8, 2011


And I'd move the whole shooting match underground. Who wants to see the freight being moved?

Phil, the freight is fine, moving with profit like clockwork, enabled by piggyback container cars. It is electric human transport that is confusing this. Let GPS car technology make the freeways more useful, packing them closer together. A lot of people want more people moving on rail and to meet their demand, they like to assume that rail freight doesn't really exist, when in fact the people either don't exist or don't match the freight capacity.
posted by Brian B. at 10:28 PM on March 8, 2011


With the possible exception of food, I'm largely parsimonious when it comes to the consumption of resources. I hold on to clothing forever and wear it until it falls apart, nearly every bag, box, or plastic container gets reused and then recycled. My real failing is that I tend to be forgetful, so for example I end up having to make multiple trips to buy things rather than driving out only once every two weeks or something. Similarly, I leave the lights on in other rooms -- not because I'm reassured by the CFL bulb, but because I forget.

In that sense, energy efficiency works really well for me, because I'm going to leave the light on in the bathroom regardless. Similarly, I"m going to make that extra trip to the store so it's worthwhile to make a more fuel efficient car.
posted by Deathalicious at 10:49 PM on March 8, 2011


The "problem", such as it is, is that energy is still very, very cheap in most parts of the developed world and especially in the U.S. There's not a lot of incentive for people to conserve, and if some new technology arrives that's significantly more energy-efficient, people are quite likely to keep the same amount of budget for energy and just get more use out of it.

That's still a net win, as an economist would look at it anyway -- more 'benefit' per unit energy -- but it might not be the goal that developers of energy-efficient technologies have in mind.

Energy conservation will happen when energy prices go up relative to incomes. And I really doubt that any significant conservation will happen absent that.

Just to put the numbers in historical perspective, one hour of labor at the U.S. minimum wage ($7.25) will get you, in my area, about 325 kWH of electricity (at 2.233c/kWH, which is actually the marginal rate you pay after the first 800kWH -- those you get at a discount). That's 1.17 gigajoules of usable energy.

Natural gas, for residential use, is comparatively expensive. If you bought gas instead of electricity ($1.07/ccf), $7.25 gets you 6.77 ccf (677 cubic feet), or about 714 MJ (at approximately 105 MJ/ccf); at an admittedly high winter fuel rate.

In 1860, a laborer could expect to make (in Victorian London), about 3s.9d. for a 10-hour workday, an hourly rate of 4.5d/hr. Hearth coal was around 1 GBP/ton (6pd / 5s for 5 tons in 1844), 240d/ton, so the laborer could purchase about 37.5 lbs of coal, or 577 MJ for an hour of labor.

Of course, the question now is: can we tolerate a return to Victorian-era energy prices while preserving the better parts of the society we've built since then, and which are almost entirely premised on cheap energy?
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:29 PM on March 8, 2011


I'm not sure I trust studies done by Shellenberger and Nordhaus - they're almost the concern trolls of environmental writing, always advising that no-one should do anything. The article is a bit fuzzy on the economics too. It mentions "some economists" but doesn't name any apart from old 19th century Jevons himself (and "modern environmentalists" get no names at all).

However, the actual research from the article was done by Sorell (an electrical engineer) and Tsao (electrical engineering and physics), which seems reasonable.

On David Owens and William Jevons - responding to the New Yorker article that Forktine posted, not the FPP. Says that it's a nice economic theory that isn't backed up by data, and that it's not 100% logical anyway. People don't use their TVs based on how much their electricity bill costs.

And a followup post Rebounds and Jevons, which goes into more of the economics.
posted by harriet vane at 2:09 AM on March 9, 2011


So the key is basically being happy with less, right? You've got CFLs, but you still turn off lights diligently? Your heating system is efficient, and your walls insulated, but you still use blankets and tell your kids to put on a sweater if they're cold?

Ultimately, it'd require a sea change in American (developed world?) culture. We'd need to accept that living frugally and working fewer hours or working a job that pays less but is more fulfilling is living better. We'd need to stop with the knee-jerk hatred that comes along with the twee hipster apartments that pack everything into 3 rooms of a loft.

Basically, the response to, "I could never live like that!" is, "You could," and "What if you had to?"
posted by explosion at 4:29 AM on March 9, 2011 [3 favorites]


People don't use their TVs based on how much their electricity bill costs.

Well, people don't use their TV based on its electricity consumption because the consumption is trivial in terms of marginal cost. If electricity was more expensive, they might -- although if electricity got expensive enough for people to worry about a modern TV, we'd probably be in dire shape. If you've ever lived off the grid, particularly on a solar system where your nighttime electricity is provided on batteries, then your usage might be driven more by the power consumption. And I know that I'm sloppier about turning the TV off than my father is, presumably because when my father was growing up, operating a TV had not-insignificant marginal costs (not just the consumption of electricity, which was about 50% more expensive in 1960 in real dollars, but also burning through vacuum tubes).

But people today do alter their usage of bigger appliances, like air conditioners and heaters, based on those appliances energy consumption, and the associated costs. When natural gas prices spiked a few years ago, I know quite a few people who started using electric heaters to heat individual rooms, while turning the overall house thermostat down. Myself included, although I've admittedly been doing less of this since I got a high-efficiency furnace.

I think there's a certain point below which people don't care about the cost anymore. Turning off the TV every time you get up to use the bathroom saves electricity, but it's not enough of a savings for most people to care. But turning off the air conditioner when you go away from the weekend clearly is, and most people do this. Somewhere in the middle is the breaking point. If electricity rates go up, as I suspect they must, it would make sense that more activities would be worth modifying in the name of cost-savings.
posted by Kadin2048 at 4:48 AM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


Interesting argument. If anyone here reads Fine Homebuilding or This Old House, or is interested in any form of DIY home improvement (or the business of building), you'll note that over the last few years "Green" has been the dominant theme in every issue.

As an example, everytime I read an article about proper insulation I'm shocked at not just the additional effort that goes into the process now, but the sheer volume of insulation that is recommended. At some point, I sit there reading and thinking that were I to implement all of the recommendations in my house to make it as "green" as possible, it would a) justify a tear-down and rebuild, and b) seem to expend a lot of energy on the materials being recommended.

In short - it seems like in the rush to insulate and greenify homes we're adding to massive consumption of various product, which in many ways may be counterintuitive and overkill.
posted by tgrundke at 5:05 AM on March 9, 2011


NYT is asking for a login, so I didn't read it, but...

I wont drive three times as much as my 23MPG car now.

The oil products you're not using will quickly be taken up by some fortunate citizen in India or China when they buy their first car. Car sales in China have been growing ridiculously rapidly, and are along with other places with growing demand easily more than enough to overwhelm any diminished petrol demand from efficiency. So there's a kind of global Jevons-like thing going on with oil. Production is and will be the limiting factor, and the world is going to burn all that's likely to be available no matter how efficient gasoline-powered cars get to be.

Also of note, more efficient cars will make the price of oil go higher than it otherwise would as supply becomes an increasingly hard constraint, since it takes more of a price rise to discourage their use than it would with a less-efficient vehicle fleet. This could have unfortunate effects on all the other things that oil is useful for. But it does mean we collectively get to do more driving.
posted by sfenders at 5:22 AM on March 9, 2011


Retrofitting houses to be energy efficient is more expensive and requires more consumption than building it in from the beginning. According to this report, "Whole-building green retrofits can cost anywhere between $2 to $7 per square foot [$21 to $75 per sq m], depending on the building’s age, existing design, purpose, and the level of savings being targeted. We also see wide variation in the return on investment [ROI], with simple payback periods ranging widely from two to 15 years." Longevity is part of the equation, not just up-front cost and materials.
posted by harriet vane at 5:29 AM on March 9, 2011


At some point, I sit there reading and thinking that were I to implement all of the recommendations in my house to make it as "green" as possible, it would a) justify a tear-down and rebuild, and b) seem to expend a lot of energy on the materials being recommended.

I think there's a name for that kind of logical fallacy. What you are missing is how easy and cheap the low hanging fruit are. Caulking windows and doors, or adding some blow-in insulation to the attic, can have a really short pay-back time (and can often be partially paid for with subsidies from the government and/or power companies).

And then, of course, once you have done that, you are back into the conundrum identified by the FPP. Your heating bill drops by $100/month, so chances are you use that money to CONSUME, baby. Maybe that means buying a bigger TV, or flying on an airplane to the other side of the world, or going out to dinner a few times. All those things are expensive in terms of energy, quite possible much more so than heating your old, uninsulated house was.

But all those things add a lot more value to your life and the general economy than just heating that uninsulated house, too. So it's not an easy paradox to solve, without making big changes to how we price energy and what we choose to subsidize.
posted by Forktine at 5:37 AM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


Energy use doesn't really matter as long as that energy is being sourced from renewables. One of the main benefits of switching to electric cars is to enable that transition.
posted by zeoslap at 6:28 AM on March 9, 2011


> the CEO of the UK's gird operator is saying that widespread use of wind power is going to make Britain's electricity system unreliable

Wait, let me fix those filters for you; Lawrence Solomon is saying that the [UK, heavily anti-renewables] Telegraph says that the CEO of the UK's grid operator is saying that widespread use of wind power is going to make Britain's electricity system unreliable. Actually, when you read the (very short and unstartling) article, you basically find out that we're going to have to live within our energy means. Make hay when the sun shines, as it were. Actually respond (oh noes!!!) to the larger environment around us.

If this efficiency creates consumption hypothesis were true, why aren't the Danes and Dutch the largest energy users per capita?
posted by scruss at 7:16 AM on March 9, 2011


Most of you won't have access but there was a meta-survey of rebound effects for different sectors and applications in Greening, Greene & Difiglio which is heavily cited (Energy Policy, Volume 28, Issues 6-7, June 2000, Pages 389-401), which suggested that in nearly all cases the recound was considerably less than unity. For example, for domestic consumers the rebound was 10-30% (26 studies), for space cooling 0-50% (9 studies), space heating 10-40% (5 studies), residential lighting 5-12% (4 studies), cars 10-30% (22 studies). Small and Dender (pdf) suggest that the rebound effect for cars has been dropping in the last quarter century as a result of rising incomes and falling real fuel costs (2007 paper so this may have seen some turnaround).
posted by biffa at 7:45 AM on March 9, 2011


he CEO of the UK's grid operator is saying that widespread use of wind power is going to make Britain's electricity system unreliable

I am quite dubious that the CEO of NG would say that even if he believed it. What he said actually implied the need to develop the legal, regulatory and market frameworks which stimulate innovation to allow more active grid management, more smart grid technology, more energy services, more market responsive tariffs, more price signals relating to security of supply, generator location, loss reduction, etc.
posted by biffa at 7:53 AM on March 9, 2011


I have wondered about this. Having replaced my gas hot water heater, (tank), I went with tankless. It may be safer during earthquakes and use less gas, but it wastes a boat load of water! It takes much, much longer to GET hot water. Yes, I've had it checked out by a plumber, all is well.

Summary, I'm saving gas, but using more water. Ugh.
posted by 6:1 at 10:05 AM on March 9, 2011


This article is garbage. The premise is highly flawed, as John Tierney, the author.

From Wikipedia:
Tierney identifies himself as a libertarian, and has become increasingly identified with libertarianism. His columns have been critical of rent stabilization, the war on drugs, Amtrak and compulsory recycling. His 1996 article "Recycling Is Garbage" broke the New York Times Magazine's hate mail record.

Joseph J. Romm has written that Tierney is one of the "influential but misinformed" skeptics who have helped prevent the U.S. from taking action on Climate Change. In his 2007 book, Hell and High Water, Romm cites, and claims to refute, what he calls Tierney's "misinformation".


While less expensive energy -- a sideeffect of increased efficiency/reduced demand -- can increase demand, that doesn't mean that the downward price pressure for increased effiiciency is that high... it isn't. Increased efficiency comes at a price, too. It's quite common for people to pay more on their electricity bill, in part, to subsidize efficiency programs, for example.

In California, for example, energy usage decreased between 2008 and 2010, despite a healthy population growth rate. After 2010, it's estimated that total power consumption will increase at about 1.22% per year. If you look at the sources of energy coming online, however, all of that new power, plus a healthy amount besides, is coming from new green sources. Use of polluting and unsustainable energy sources for power generation is actually decreasing.

So, basically... just because economics works and people tend to use the resources made available to them if they're at a reasonable price, that doesn't mean that efficiency isn't extremely important and valuable. It also has the added benefit of increasing economic output and production, creating jobs, and lowering the cost of goods to consumers, in the same way that it lowers the cost of electricy.

....and last I heard, even recycling/global warming skeptics could appreciate a strong economy, even if the policies they promote make it appear that they don't want one. Am I wrong?!
posted by markkraft at 9:03 PM on March 9, 2011


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