Efficiency. It’s a key word . . . a mandate . . . a state of being. And it is—after all is said and done—our ultimate goal: to find a way to reduce waste to get the most out of our resources. Intuitively, most of us associate efficiency with use reduction—using less and getting more. But what if the opposite is true? Could increased efficiency result in increased consumption? And if so, what does that mean for energy efficiency?
This week in The National, Bjorn Lomberg—author of The Skeptical Environmentalist and adjunct professor at Copenhagen Business School—explores the efficiency conundrum in an article entitled “If you think efficiency reduces our energy use, think again”. In his piece, Lomberg neatly lays out the path linking efficiency to consumption by discussing the effects of energy-efficient products and historical energy use. For example, in the 1970s, the average American citizen used approximately 70 million BTUs per year for heating, cooling, and electricity. Forty years later, efficient appliances and fixtures haven’t made a dent in that original number: American still, on average, uses 70 million BTUs of energy per year. This initial finding is back up by research published in the August 2010 issue of The Journal of Physics: After reviewing “300 years of evidence,” economist Harry Saunders and his colleagues at the Sandia National Laboratory discovered that lighting efficiency and lighting use operate in tandem—as one increases, so does the other.
Lomberg rightly points out that this counterintuitive behavior can be traced back to what psychologists describe as “the rebound effect.” The rebound effect (also known as the take-back effect) is used to describe behavioral responses to new technologies that reduce use in as much as these new efficiencies inspire increased consumption. In other words, the savings or benefits experienced by increased efficiency are offset by increased usage. The rebound effect is generally defined by a ration of “lost benefit compared to expected environmental benefit when holding consumption constant” (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1465-7287.1997.tb00484.x/abstract).
So what do you think? Should efficiency alone be our focus in light of the fact that, according to most economists, the “long-term rebound effect” of fuel-efficient technologies is higher than 100%? When new technologies aimed at improving fuel efficiency actually increase energy usage, should our benchmarks shift? And because, as Saunders points out, “energy efficiency may be a net positive in increasing economic productivity and growth, but should not be relied upon as a way to reduce energy consumption and thus greenhouse-gas emissions”, should our efficiency goals be tied to greenhouse gas and climate change policies? Finally, do you agree with Lomberg’s conclusion that while we “shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that swapping our current car for a Prius or replacing our incandescent lights with energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs will strike a meaningful blow against climate change,” the solution is not necessarily to abandon efficient technologies, but instead to reframe the government’s focus so that there is a greater emphasis on R&D aimed at changing proportion of green energy to overall consumption so that renewable resources become a larger piece of the energy resource pie?