The Illusion of Energy Efficiency as a Solution

In 1865, an Englishman named William Stanley Jevons published a book entitled The Coal Question, as I discovered in an article entitled “The Efficiency Dilemma,” in the December 20th issue of The New Yorker.  What was striking about the book was its “proof” that energy efficiency leads not to less energy use, but more.  Over the years, economists have debated this proof, and others that followed, but the conclusions noted in the article seem indisputable:  Energy usage for any given application of the same task and scope tends to decline, but overall energy usage increases.  Cars become more efficient… so they become larger with more capabilities, and their overall worldwide usage increases markedly.  The same is true of refrigerators and air conditioners, computers, cell phones, etc.

And the result?  Overall energy usage continues to climb… and it will continue to grow even as energy efficiency increases as well.  In short, we can’t “efficiency” our way out of the energy problem.  Does that mean we shouldn’t continue the efforts toward greater efficiency?  No… we need all the efficiency we can squeeze out of our technology. 

The problem is economic… and political.  When goods or services are less expensive, we humans use more of them.  We also have a “good idea” [whether we do or not] of what those goods and services “should” cost.  An example of how this perception can be skewed was the furor over ebook prices in mid-2010.  Many readers insisted ebooks should be cheaper because electronic downloads and copies cost almost nothing, and blank discs are cheap.  They really didn’t consider all the other expenses going into producing a book.  In essence, they were insisting that ebooks be priced at the marginal cost of production, rather than factoring in any of the sunk costs, or the lost revenues coming from the decline in hardcover and paperbook sales.

In the case of energy, however, governments and societies face a different problem.  Energy is cheaper, in real terms, than it used to be, and people are using more.  The only way to cut back on energy usage is to make it more expensive, or to ration its usage.  And since technology is making it currently less expensive overall, and since people don’t want to pay more for “cleaner” energy such as wind and solar power, the only way to increase costs is either to mandate greater use of cleaner energy or to increase the taxes on energy.  This, needless to say, is politically unpopular, even if government made such energy taxes “progressive,” with higher tax rates on larger energy consumers.  People would create a political backlash, and others would opt for their own generators and solar panels once the taxes got too high.

Energy rationing would effectively be a non-starter in most democratic nations.

And, as a result, it appears that the energy “problem” will simply be pushed farther into the future, until true costs can no longer be denied, and prices inevitably rise, along with the costs of goods and services requiring energy inputs – and that’s almost everything.

3 thoughts on “The Illusion of Energy Efficiency as a Solution”

  1. Derek says:

    My family is actually highly involved in the current energy efficiency craze, on the marketing side that is…

    Your analysis is spot on, but I want to add some worries on deferred costs in the energy industry. Currently in the housing market, Energy Star/Green building is beginning to be become a standard thing. This would be good, were it not for the fact that people are not actually paying for the low-e windows, Energy Star appliances, and thicker insulation. Were it not for tax credits and incentives from the government to cover the costs of making a house ‘green,’ it would not be feasibly marketable.

    I do believe we need to encourage energy efficiency, but what they are doing in the housing market strikes me as just differing the real costs of energy efficiency. I guess I worry that those costs will catch up with us before we ever see the real benefits of energy efficiency. Legislation requiring the products seems more sustainable in the long run than tax incentives to make the products more ‘affordable.’

    I’m not quite sure though, I know enough to know I don’t know enough. I wonder if there are others that could shed some light here.

  2. Grant Edmunds says:

    Your observations make me think of Calvin and Hobbes (everything can be related to Calvin and Hobbes) There is a comic wherein Calvin’s dad makes similar observations about time, the more efficiently we use it the less we seem to have. To see it go to: and search “Who’s got that kind of time?”
    and I didn’t link it because I don’t know how Mr. Modesitt’s comment thread responds to links.

  3. Grant Edmunds says:

    Oh, it did link I know less about this sort of thing then I thought. Hm, well now I know how the comment thread responds to links

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