When new energy-efficient technology merely encourages waste

Got an interesting package in the mail yesterday from lighting giant Sylvania, which is introducing a new line of LED-lit products. One is a bottle stopper — you know, those plastic corks you use to store an opened a bottle of wine? But this isn’t just any bottle stopper. Moulded within are two watch batteries that power an LED light that changes colors. The idea is that when you have guests over, you can impress them by lighting up the bottle of wine at the centre of the table. They also have drink coasters and place mats that do the same, creating a light show on the dining room table.

This wouldn’t be possible without LED efficiency. But it also shouldn’t be possible. It’s pointless. It merely encourages more waste. The batteries in most cases can’t be replaced. The batteries run out after 60 hours of use, after which most people will be inclined to chuck the item in the garbage.

This is a prime example of new energy-efficient technology enabling more consumption, more waste. “While seemingly perverse, improvements in energy efficiency result in more of the good being consumed – not less,” said Jeff Rubin in 2007 when he was chief economist at CIBC World Markets. He cited the Khazzoom-Brookes postulate, which argues that “as improvements in energy efficiency lower the cost effective cost of energy relative to what otherwise would have prevailed, the resulting substitution and income effects that flow from any price change result in more of the good being consumed.”

The battery-powered LED bottle stopper and coasters may be small examples of the Khazzoom-Brookes postulate in action, but they all add up. It warns us that technology alone won’t save the day, and in some cases can set us back.

14 thoughts on “When new energy-efficient technology merely encourages waste”

  1. That’s why we should not wait for technologies that could “replace” our actual extreme energy consumption, but first reduce the consumption, and let the technology increase our lifestyle back to where it is know.

  2. reminds me of the stat which showed that commuting distances have increased as fuel efficiency of vehicles increased over the last 30 years.

    we’re humans and we’re dumb.

  3. I see what you’re getting at but this is just a trivial gimmick with a very very limited market (i hope, if only from the point of view of good taste).

    But consider the big energy consumers in the home – boiler, cold and wet appliances, TVs, computers etc. There’s only so many of these that anyone’s going to buy, however efficient they are and we’re pretty much at that saturation point in the West. Making these things efficient will offer huge gains. and the main thing is that rising energy prices will offset efficiency gains so the cost of operating all this kit will stay pretty flat.

    Ditto for cars – congestion is so bad now that people really don’t want to drive much more than is absolutely necessary, however efficient they become.

    But you’re absolutely right, a change in mindset is needed. The active pursuit of efficiency needs to be a desirable, fashionable way of life.

  4. I see what you’re getting at, but there *is* an energy saturation point for our civilization. It’s just far greater than the solar constant multiplied by the total land area of earth.

    Think of it this way: electricity became common place in order to provide electric lighting. In order to deal with the increased demand, they built more power plants. This lead to an excess of electricity in some small regions, and devices were invented to consume this excess (refrigerators, vacuum cleaners). As these devices spread from the areas of excess energy to the areas with a nominal production/demand ratio, they created an imbalance. Demand skyrocketed. This lead to the building of more powerplants, and the eventual creation of pockets of excess energy production… which lead to the invention of new devices (electric clothes dryers and electric ovens being two of the big ones). And so on (TVs!), and so on(*massive* Christmas light displays!), and so on (air conditioners!), until we got where we are today.

    And where are we today? We’re in one of the lulls. We’re in one of the values in production/demand ratio graph. We have too much demand, and not enough production.

    Now, basic economics (which is, remember, just the study of basic human nature applied to material trade) predicts that if we manage to reach a new equilibrium, say, by inventing new energy sources, or by increasing efficiency, or by enacting forced conservation measures, this will simply start the cycle all over again.

    So asking all of us to conserve where possible, or inventing new energy effiecent devices is just great, but it won’t end the cycle. Neither you nor I nor anyone else is going to stop the next electric washing machine from being invented, whatever that device might be. Maybe Holographic TVs will take buttloads of power. Who knows? Not me. Not you.

    There is only one solution, in the end: attempt to stay ahead of the curve long enough for us to reach the per capita energy saturation point, and then make sure our population doesn’t grow. Then energy consumption won’t keep increasing, and we can breathe easy for once.

    And since it is very clear that the total amount of energy Earth is receiving from the sun is insufficient in the longer term, when all human ambitions are accounted for (want to take a day-long class fieldtrip to Jupiter’s moon Io, to study exo-volcanism? No problem… errrr…), solar power will not prove to be the solution. Even our current ambitions are greater than what solar can provide. Sure, solar would be *great* if our energy use stayed at its current level, but both history and a bit of logic tell us that this will not be the case. Heck, military applications alone ( various types of energy shielding, particle weapons, plasma weapons, energy weapons (such as, but not limited to, lasers)) demand unbelievably large amounts of energy. Even if you could convince consumers to halt their buying in their tracks, the militaries of the world will forge on, or be destroyed as they fall behind the curve.

    Barring some kind of weird discovery (which can’t be completely discounted, but we can’t bank on it), there is only one source of power that can provide for all our needs: fusion. A single largish fusion reactor could produce *more* energy than Earth receives from the sun by converting 2 kilograms of matter to energy per second. That might sound like a lot… but it really isn’t. Assuming you’re using a Deuterium-Deuterium fusion process (rather than using hydrogen, which is much more abundant, but more difficult to use), we’d only be able to convert 2 kg of matter to energy for 372 million years. And that’s just the Deuterium in the oceans:P. I’m thinking that by the time 372 million years have passed, we’ll be able to harvest a passing comet or 2 for more fuel.

    In short due to basic human nature (which you can’t change unless you want to genetically engineer all of us;)), fusion is the *only* long term power source available to us. Everything else is just a waste of time and resources.

    Looking at the distant future side of things (which is irrelevant, but fun):

    Even if you wanted to generate as much energy as the sun outputs in *total* (Earth receives less than one two billionth of the sun’s energy output), you’d only need a fusion reactor 50 kilometres across.

    Unfeasible for now, but not for long:P. There is a reason why when we look at the stars we don’t see any Dyson spheres collecting solar power (we have the ability to detect such swarms/structures, but haven’t seen any): it’s because they don’t exist. No civilization in their right mind uses a star as a power source, because stars are incredibly inefficient, and have a brutally low energy density.

  5. That should have read “we’re in one of the *valleys” of the production demand graph, not “we’re in one of the values”. Grrr. I hate it when I typo.

  6. I really like your columns Tyler, usually agree with most of them- but I think this is a good thing that Sylvania is doing- they are looking for new applications/markets for their LED production- in the end, this will increase production of LED lights, which will ramp up accectance and usuage, and bring down cost. And who knows, perhaps they will also come up with some as yet unforseen uses for LED’s as well. I am reminded that when Intel first started, it was looking at ways to market and use their IC chips- it wasn’t until later that the they hit the jackpot with microprocessors;-)

  7. The problem is called Jevons’s paradox. The cell phone is one huge example of this problem. In their current form factor, they would not be possible without extremely efficient processors, displays, and software and newer batteries that store power more densely. They would not be as small or as long-lasting without big advancements in these areas, and size and longevity have contributed to their mass appeal (i.e. the ability to fit into a pocket, and to not have to be charged every 12 hours).

    If you dig through the computer science and engineering research, you will find lots of work being done on the efficiency of small electronics and much of it is aimed at finding newer, broader applications where the status quo produces electronics that are too inefficient to currently provide solutions…. and so they are not used.

    Also, think about the prospect of everything we buy containing an RFID tag. Or the massive new market that cheaper cars will produce: gasoline is not expensive to buy, but for many people in developing countries, the cost of the cars that consume it is a barrier to significant consumption of that fuel.

  8. @ Paul C, you are essentially agreeing with Tyler. The issue is not the technical genius but the overall increase in energy consumption that these efficiencies lead to.

  9. I just realized that I made a logical error in coming up with that “372 million year supply of deuterium fuel in the oceans” bit. I assumed *total* conversion of mass to energy, when that is nowhere near the case. In reality there is closer to a 500,000 year supply of deuterium fuel in the oceans.

  10. Hi Tyler. Just saw your post. Great post. I indeed have a neighbour who leaves its LED Christmas lights on permanently now (365 days. 24/7, yes – even during the day!). That’s a clear example of perverse energy efficiency impact. However, these same LED Christmas lights now come in a solar version (only possible due to LED energy efficiency), which alleviates this very problem. So I do believe that technology leads the way forward.

    Now on the issue of LED table ambiance lighting. First, as Paul C. mentioned, this is a market making application, where the price is more elastic than in general lighting applications. Second, and perhaps more relevant to your post, the competition is actually candle lighting, not electrical lighting in this particular scenario (just think about restaurants, etc. as a prime market for table ambiance light). As such, I believe that LED table lights (embedded in coasters, corks or otherwise) are very beneficial for the environment as they are much cleaner than burning candles. Note that there are rechargeable versions of such devices (I have one of these) which handles the buy-and-throw-away issue.

    I personnally tend to disagree with the hypothesis that energy efficiency drives up energy consumption. Maybe a bit, but not more than to offset the benefits of energy efficiency (I agree with Scatter’s post, and would also add home energy efficiency: I have had my home insulated, it’s now a bit more comfortable in winter, but the primary impact was a drastic reduction in energy consumption).

    Anyway, great discussion.

  11. I agree with blue_baby in that the general trend of technology has been toward lighter, faster, cheaper, and cleaner over the decades. 150 years ago burning coal for steam engines was the leading edge technology, and 50 years ago it was nuclear. Now it’s renewable energy sources.

    Similarly with the use of technology – LED table lights are much safer than candles.

    I agree, great posts Tyler!

  12. I’ll second Paul C here. Sure, a little bit of waste in this luxury consumer item. But that’s short sighted. These kind of niche markets are important for early market adoption and provide an avenue for further supply chain efficiency, funds for more R&D, gradual scale up of production leading to more and more mass manufacturing economies…

    The real paradox about Jevons’ paradox, is that it has never been conclusively proven in a quantitative way. The causality is highly questionable, as there are many factors at play and the simple paradox that Jevon thought of doesn’t have much explanotory power in the real world. For example, it omits population growth (Jevon lived a LONG time ago), as a primary impactor on resource use. And yet Jevon’s paradox is often used as some argument against efficiency to promote some hidden agenda by propagandists. Usually, this concerns either nuclear propagadists or doomers that want to go “back to nature” or something.

  13. Thorium is also a big energy source, 1 gram can deliver 8000 kWh of electricity at your socket.

    With at least a million metric tonnes of proven thorium reserves, that’s 8,000,000 TWh electricity delivered. With global electricity use at 15,000 TWh this puts the proven reserves at well over 500 years of supply. It gets better when you realize that thorium is really cheap; a gram would only cost several cents at today’s spot price. Several cents for 8000 kWh (much more than my yearly use) is a really good bargain for fuel costs. Even a ten-fold increase in thorium prices wouldn’t be noticed in the electricity bill by most… but it would make much more thorium economically recoverable.

    The real trick will be how to make a lot of thorium reactors quickly and cheaply, but it seems worth a shot.

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