Energy Efficiency: A Fatal Flaw?

The New Yorker’s last issue of the year examines "The Efficiency Dilemma", also known as Jevons’ Paradox: Gains in energy efficiency simply serve to increase energy consumption above where it would be without those gains.

In other words, if you save a dollar on fuel costs, you’ll inevitably spend that dollar on other goods or activities that involve further, increased fuel consumption. The “backfire” effect.

Consider: “The average refrigerator sold in the United States today uses three-quarters less energy than the 1975 average, even though it is 20% larger and costs 60% less.”

But our uses of cooling haven’t remained steady. More efficient refrigeration has led to a mushrooming demand for all things cooled. We want bigger, fancier refrigerators at home, along with side-by-side freezers and ice makers for the bar. Not to mention the cooled products we expect at gas stations, convenience stores, airports and everywhere in-between. And today most hotel rooms come with a small fridge.

We buy more food to fill our roomy fridges, but since the mid 1970’s, per-capita food waste has increased by half. We’re throwing away more edible food, and with it, the energy that went into growing, harvesting, processing,  transporting, and cooling it.

Need another example? Think about how fuel efficiency has led to greater mobility and sprawl.

We’ll discuss additional implications of Jevons’ Paradox next week.