But there are some who question whether energy efficiency is everything it’s touted to be. Specifically, they point to the idea that there is a large rebound effect to increased energy efficiency. The concept here is that when we use products that consume less energy, we end up using more of the product or using more products – or both.
When we buy a more energy-efficient car, we drive more. When we install more efficient light bulbs, we’re more inclined to leave the lights on longer. If the end result is that gains in energy efficiency are offset by increased energy use, then what’s the point?
This dilemma was first explored in 1885 by British economist William Stanley Jevons, which is why the rebound effect is often referred to as the Jevons paradox. These days, critics with mostly libertarian leanings cite it as a reason to discontinue “ineffective” government-funded energy efficiency programs.
The Washington-based Institute for Energy Research, which has reportedly received funding from the likes of Koch Industries and ExxonMobil, made that argument last month in a 43-page report.
“The pervasiveness of energy efficiency rebounds illustrates that attempts to plan or direct energy policy toward desired goals will likely fall short of expectations,” it asserted. “Instead of imposing energy efficiency mandates, energy policy should embrace market prices and disruptive innovations to guide energy to its most valuable uses.”
In other words, policies attempting to phase out inefficient lighting products? Bad. Mandating fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles? Ineffective government meddling. Make power plants cleaner and more efficient? Let the market decide.
The research institute’s study rightly ruffled the feathers of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, which this week tried to set the record straight: Claims of 100 per cent rebound, it said, “do not stand up to scrutiny.”
The council released its own detailed report – a kind of study of available studies – that looked at both direct and indirect rebound effects.
Direct rebounds include the example of driving a more efficient car more often, ultimately using up any potential fuel savings. An indirect rebound occurs when money pocketed through energy-efficiency savings is spent on something else, such as a big-screen TV, which ends up consuming more energy – both through its production and everyday operation.
The council didn’t dispute that such rebounds exist, and that they vary depending on the product or action. But it concluded that critics of energy-efficiency programs were grossly exaggerating the size of the rebounds. It found that direct rebounds were generally 10 per cent or less, and indirect rebounds – while “less well understood” – were estimated at 11 per cent.
“Even if total rebound is about 20 per cent, then 80 per cent of the savings from energy efficiency programs and policies register in terms of reduced energy use,” it said. “And the 20 per cent rebound contributes to increased consumer amenities and a larger economy. These savings are not ‘lost’ but are put to other generally beneficial uses.”
On top of this, it would stand to reason that the rebound effect would be smaller in an environment of rising energy prices. Indeed, higher gasoline prices are driving many people to purchase more energy-efficient vehicles.
In this sense, efficiency is being embraced as a way to cope with energy inflation; a way to maintain current levels of consumption, not drive more of it. If gas prices never changed, it might be a different story, but most people just want to be able to drive back and forth to work and keep their gas bill manageable.
Former CIBC chief economist Jeff Rubin has argued that the genesis of the economic crisis we’re currently in has to do with high oil prices, and that reality of rising energy costs will make it difficult for countries – such as the economic basket cases in the eurozone – to achieve the kind of growth they need to recover.
Along this line of thinking, it would seem that greater energy efficiency – with one measure being energy consumption per unit of GDP, or “energy productivity”—represents one way for countries to cope with rising oil prices and achieve the kind of growth that can help whittle down debt and balance budgets.
Greater energy efficiency, in this respect, could play a large role in lifting us out of our global economic doldrums.
I’m sure even Mr. Jevons would agree.
Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.