In a recent MNN post, Lloyd Alter contends “having more stuff is eating up all the gains from being more efficient”. Is that true?
Mr. Alter’s post suggests that Stanley Jevons was right: if things become more efficient, we will use more of them. This idea, also known as the “rebound effect”, seems to be supported by the data in Mr. Alter’s post.
Using Outdated Data?
Mr. Alter’s post was published on February 13 of this year. In 2015, why would an author refer to data from the last decade? The data (linked in his article) comes from the U.S. Energy Information Adminsitration’s (EIA) residential energy consumption surveys (RECS) 1980-2009. It was published February 3rd of this year so it’s relatively new data. Still, the data set ends in 2009 so it only tells part of the story.
One of the key graphs in the EIA report (not shared in the MNN post) is the following:
It shows (total energy use on the left-hand side) though newer homes are about 30% larger, they consume about the same energy as older homes. That’s quite remarkable and should only be expected to improve.
Looking at the Data in Context
The first generation iPhone was released on June 29, 2007. At the end of the last decade, when the EIA data stops, we were still buying gas-plasma television sets which, even at the time, we knew were relatively inefficient. Though Mr. Alter’s post relies on data just released, that data doesn’t take into account the evolution in technology over the last five years. Plasma televisions are now a dead technology and our other gadgets are using less energy, even as they’re getting bigger.
No Where to Go But Up
The following EIA charts are included in Mr. Alter’s post:
While it may appear, at first glance, that gadgets are taking over our total home energy use, that’s not necessarily the case for 2015. As we reduce the energy we use for heating and cooling, the other loads will appear as a larger percentage of total home energy use.
Frankly, if you think about all the things that fall into the “appliances, electronics and lighting” category, it’s a wonder that they don’t use more than a third of the total energy consumed in our homes. That category includes your fridge, oven, cooktop, clothes dryer, television(s), computers, phone(s) and all the other devices we use daily.
Looking at energy consumption relative to other uses in the house is confusing – we shouldn’t cherry pick charts like those above to use as fodder to argue that we’re not making progress. Energy efficiency is good though we should focus on reducing energy consumption by use year after year. That often requires a look at your utility bills and some educated guessing.
Soon, energy management systems accessible on our mobile devices will be able to account for year-to-year differences like a more severe winter or a hotter summer. We’ll be able to see our consumption relative to our behavior. That will tell us how we, as individuals, are doing so we can choose to make changes for the better. It will become easier to use that data to figure a cash amount for increased efficiency and different behavior. Cash is a pretty powerful motivator, as is gaming – using that data to compete against ourselves.
Always Agree with Amory?
Mr. Alter points out that Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute has suggested that (in 2008) we’re seeing relatively small rebound effects – we’re not completely offsetting increased efficiency with increased consumption. That seems to be the case, as Amory Lovins notes, because we reach market saturation. We can only purchase and use so many devices.
As those devices become consolidated, we become more efficient. Cameras and refrigerators are good examples. Why carry a point-and-shoot camera? The cameras on smart phones are so good they now rival stand-alone cameras and you can send, post or print images from your phone.
Refrigerators have gotten slightly bigger though many newer models are using less energy than older, smaller models. There’s a limit to the innovation a refrigerator manufacturer can at a price the market will bear. Today, manufacturers offer similar models so they also have to compete by trying to offer the lowest energy consumption.
Government Behind the Scenes?
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the State of California are driving increased efficiency and lower energy consumption. If you’re not subscribed to their public notice email lists you probably wouldn’t know that they’re constantly amending standards for all manner of appliances so we’re making incremental progress. It’s less disruptive that way. They also have sustainable building programs to help reduce other uses in the house like heating, cooling, lighting and water heating.
To dismiss the progress we’re making as a population, you’d have to discount the incredible evolution in technology (since 2009), ignore our vastly-improved ability to measure what matters and take our ever-improving efficiency standards for granted. You’d also have ignore the remarkable legislative and technological progress renewable energy resources have made since the data (ending in 2009) cited by Mr. Alter.
Mr. Alter notes that he had nine devices running or charging at his desk as he wrote the post. The incredible potential in our free-market economy means there are any number of companies trying to figure out how to consolidate those devices into one or two devices that consume less energy and are accessible whenever we want to use them.
The housing market is moving very quickly toward net-zero energy homes – homes that produce as much energy as they consume. That’s possible by balancing design, consumption and renewable energy resources. Yes, we have a great deal of existing homes to address yet the future is bright!
As always, if you’ve got a comment or question, please share it below. Thanks!
Image by CWCS Manged Hosting used under creative commons license. Graph and charts from EIA.