Skip to main content

The Paradox of Efficiency

In Monday's New York Times, columnist John Tierney adds a thoughtful piece to the many articles and blog posts written about the paradox of efficiency as energy policy panacea. Mr. Tierney discusses several aspects of energy efficiency, including the "rebound effect" (also known as the Jevons Paradox, about which my colleague David Bradish has written several blog posts).

For us, the bottom line of the article is a recognition that efficiency improvements are unlikely to reduce carbon emissions and may, in fact, increase them as consumer savings on energy are spent on more carbon-intensive products and services elsewhere in the economy. We believe Mr. Tierney gets it right when he says:
"But if your immediate goal is to reduce greenhouse emissions, then it seems risky to count on reaching it by improving energy efficiency. To economists worried about rebound effects, it makes more sense to look for new carbon-free sources of energy, or to impose a direct penalty for emissions, like a tax on energy generated from fossil fuels.[emphasis added]"
The Times article is a quick, insightful read and we commend it to you.

Comments

Jeff Schmidt said…
In addition to 'rebound' effects, there's also an effect, I don't know if it has a name or not, but I hope economists take this into account:

If efficiency comes at the cost of efficacy (that is, how well the product works), then efficiency might actually cause *more waste*. The article in the nytimes opened with an example of clothes washers that don't get your clothes clean. If that happens, people might run their clothes through two cycles to get them clean. If those two cycles in the 'efficient' machine use more energy/water than a single cycle of the 'less efficient' model that was highly effective, then you'd be better off running the clothes once in the 'less efficient' machine.

The article also talked about a comment from efficiency advocates that "you won't vacuum more just because you have a more efficient vacuum". Well, if the vacuum doesn't get the floor clean in one or two passes, so I have to run the vacuum longer to get the floor just as clean, then yes, I will vacuum more just because I have a more efficient vacuum.

One other issue the article completely leaves out: When is it worthwhile, efficiency-wise, to replace something?

Let's use the 'cash for clunkers' program which made so much news a couple years ago, which gave people an incentive to trade in old, low-mpg cars and trucks. They would get a government subsidy to buy a new, more fuel efficient vehicle.

One of the 'features' of that program was that the car had to be destroyed. The engine had to be rendered inoperable, so that the car would not be resold as a used vehicle and continue to operate.

I have a big problem with that, depending on just how old and 'clunkery' the vehicle might have been: It takes a lot of energy to make a new car or truck. The energy saved by fuel efficiency is very likely not going to be sufficient to reclaim the energy required to manufacture a new vehicle.

The only time it makes sense to improve efficiency, in such cases, is at the 'natural' time when the vehicle would be retired and a new vehicle is *required* anyhow - e.g. the energy to manufacture the vehicle must be spent anyhow, but you can choose to manufacture/buy a more efficient vehicle instead of a less efficient vehicle.

Same principle would apply to almost any manufactured good (home furnaces, appliances, TVs, computers, etc) - the energy required to replace the item may possibly be greater than the savings which would accrue to the new item vs just continuing to use the old item.
Finrod said…
Implicit in the policy of fighting carbon emissions by 'energy efficiency' is the assumption that the energy production system will continue to be CO2-rich.
By the time most Americans are driving plug-in-hybrids 20 or 30 years from now, they might also be using more expensive synthetic gasoline derived from a variety of carbon neutral resources. So the beauty of efficiency is that it makes the expense of transitioning to costlier but cleaner fuels much more tolerable to the consumer.
SteveK9 said…
Marcel: They might also be charging their all-electric cars with cheap electricity from nuclear power plants. I think you will see that happen in India and China in even less than 20 years.
Anonymous said…
"Implicit in the policy of fighting carbon emissions by 'energy efficiency' is the assumption that the energy production system will continue to be CO2-rich."

Not even close to true. That wedge report and most every other analysis says efficiency AND non- or low-carbon energy sources will be needed to mitigate climate change.
Finrod said…
Yes Anonymous, I know the reports SAY that, but I contend that the implication is nonetheless there. Anti-nukes insist that energy efficiency is a necessity because they explicitly rule out the great abundance which nuclear power can provide. They do not wish for attention to be drawn to this, of course.

Popular posts from this blog

Making Clouds for a Living

Donell Banks works at Southern Nuclear’s Plant Vogtle units 3 and 4 as a shift supervisor in Operations, but is in the process of transitioning to his newly appointed role as the daily work controls manager. He has been in the nuclear energy industry for about 11 years.

I love what I do because I have the unique opportunity to help shape the direction and influence the culture for the future of nuclear power in the United States. Every single day presents a new challenge, but I wouldn't have it any other way. As a shift supervisor, I was primarily responsible for managing the development of procedures and programs to support operation of the first new nuclear units in the United States in more than 30 years. As the daily work controls manager, I will be responsible for oversight of the execution and scheduling of daily work to ensure organizational readiness to operate the new units.

I envision a nuclear energy industry that leverages the technology of today to improve efficiency…

Why America Needs the MOX Facility

If Isaiah had been a nuclear engineer, he’d have loved this project. And the Trump Administration should too, despite the proposal to eliminate it in the FY 2018 budget.

The project is a massive factory near Aiken, S.C., that will take plutonium from the government’s arsenal and turn it into fuel for civilian power reactors. The plutonium, made by the United States during the Cold War in a competition with the Soviet Union, is now surplus, and the United States and the Russian Federation jointly agreed to reduce their stocks, to reduce the chance of its use in weapons. Over two thousand construction workers, technicians and engineers are at work to enable the transformation.

Carrying Isaiah’s “swords into plowshares” vision into the nuclear field did not originate with plutonium. In 1993, the United States and Russia began a 20-year program to take weapons-grade uranium out of the Russian inventory, dilute it to levels appropriate for civilian power plants, and then use it to produce…

Nuclear: Energy for All Political Seasons

The electoral college will soon confirm a surprise election result, Donald Trump. However, in the electricity world, there are fewer surprises – physics and economics will continue to apply, and Republicans and Democrats are going to find a lot to like about nuclear energy over the next four years.

In a Trump administration, the carbon conversation is going to be less prominent. But the nuclear value proposition is still there. We bring steady jobs to rural areas, including in the Rust Belt, which put Donald Trump in office. Nuclear plants keep the surrounding communities vibrant.

We hold down electricity costs for the whole economy. We provide energy diversity, reducing the risk of disruption. We are a critical part of America’s industrial infrastructure, and the importance of infrastructure is something that President-Elect Trump has stressed.

One of our infrastructure challenges is natural gas pipelines, which have gotten more congested as extremely low gas prices have pulled m…