Energy Efficiency Can Backfire

March 11, 2011

We've come far since the carefree days of 1996, when Consumer Reports tested some midpriced top-loader washing machines and reported that "any washing machine will get clothes clean."  In this year's report, no top-loading machine got top marks for cleaning.  The best performers were front-loaders costing on average more than $1,000.  Even after adjusting for inflation, that's still $350 more than the top-loaders of 1996.  What happened to yesterday's top-loaders? asks the New York Times.

  • To comply with federal energy-efficiency requirements, manufacturers made changes like reducing the quantity of hot water.
  • The result was a bunch of what Consumer Reports called "washday wash-outs," which left some clothes "nearly as stained after washing as they were when we put them in."

You might think that dirtier clothes are a small price to pay to save the planet.  But a growing number of economists say that the environmental benefits of energy efficiency have been oversold.  Paradoxically, there could even be more emissions as a result of some improvements in energy efficiency, these economists say.

The problem is known as the energy rebound effect.

  • While there's no doubt that fuel-efficient cars burn less gasoline per mile, the lower cost at the pump tends to encourage extra driving.
  • There's also an indirect rebound effect as drivers use the money they save on gasoline to buy other things that produce greenhouse emissions, like new electronic gadgets or vacation trips on fuel-burning planes.
  • Some of the biggest rebound effects occur when new economic activity results from energy-efficient technologies that reduce the cost of making products like steel or generating electricity.
  • In some cases, the overall result can be what's called "backfire": more energy use than would have occurred without the improved efficiency.

Source: John Tierney, "When Energy Efficiency Sullies the Environment," March 7, 2011.

For text:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/08/science/08tier.html

 

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