Elusive Efficiency, cont.

Rebound

Interestingly, thanks again to human nature, even implementing measures that improve efficiency will not necessarily result in reduced energy use.

One challenge is something called the “rebound effect.” By definition, greater efficiency lowers the cost to use a technology. But people tend to consume more of something as it gets cheaper. When these two truths collide, efficiency gains can be diluted by increases in use. One study found that households with high-efficiency washing machines boosted the volume of washing they did on average by 5.6 percent. This increase didn’t negate the 40 to 50 percent reductions in water and energy consump­tion the units delivered, but it did erode total efficiency gains, according to a 2008 RAND paper by economist Lucas Davis.

For another twist on how human nature can stymie efficiency’s efforts to cut energy use, consider America’s love affair with big, fast cars. The technology to dramatically boost vehicle efficiency has been progressing for decades, but technology upgrades that could have saved energy have instead gone to soup up performance. While mileage barely budged between 1990 and now, average horsepower surged 77 percent, to around 230 today. As a result, today’s mild-mannered Toyota Sienna minivan offers about as much horsepower as Ford’s fastest ’72 Mustang.

More Carrots, More Sticks

Alas, there is no single fix for efficiency elusiveness. Logjams like the PACE policy must be dismantled one by one. And because human behavior is so complex, approaches to altering it must take many forms.

For now, incentives are the most politically saleable strategy to induce efficiency savings. As part of the stimulus bill, the U.S. Department of Energy has doled out hundreds of millions to boost efficiency programs.

More vigorous mandates are making a comeback, too. Most visible, perhaps, has been the rollout of higher mileage standards for cars. And in September, DOE announced the latest in a series of new rules to boost efficiency, in this case dozens of tough penalties against companies selling appliances, plumbing and lighting without certifying that they meet energy and/or water efficiency standards. Such well-crafted rules promise to speed change while obviating many of the psychological traps that can distract consumers. When we can’t opt for a less-efficient technology, our purchasing decisions get easier.

There may even be a public appetite for a yet heavier regulatory hand. A national survey conducted by the Mellman Group for the Union of Concerned Scientists suggests con­sumers may prefer tougher mileage rules. The study found that about 74 percent of voters favor tougher federal goals requiring that average fuel efficiency rise to 60 mpg by 2025. Two-thirds supported the goal even if it meant a $3,000 premium on the sticker price, assuming that could be recouped in savings at the pump within four years.

Perhaps the biggest motivator of all could end up to be the market. The sharp oil price spike of 2008 caused an unprecedented stampede away from gas-guzzling vehicles, and triggered broader efforts to cut energy use. Similar increases in the cost of electricity or natural gas could do much to motivate consumers to cut back by improving their energy efficiency.

Of course, in a now familiar cycle, once gas prices retreated, the clamor for more efficient cars all but evaporated.

Advocates for a tax on carbon emis­sions generated by energy use argue such a fee would trigger the adoption of energy efficiency measures in an orderly fashion by preventing such on-again, off-again shifts toward efficient technologies. Better to create an incentive to put efficient systems into place ahead of time, they argue, than to wait for unpredictably high energy prices to return and force these shifts chaotically. Indeed, better we all learn efficiency-improving behaviors while we can afford to.

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Adam Aston is a freelance writer in Brooklyn. His work has ap­peared in BusinessWeek, Technology Review, The Fiscal Times, OnEarth, GreenBiz and elsewhere.

Supersize It!

Empire State Building PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SCIENCE MUSEUM OF MINNESOTA

Innovative thinking is producing exciting new approaches to boosting energy efficiency on a large scale. Take a quick tour of two of them: exergy and power electronics. Read the article


Further Reading

Steps households can take to increase energy efficiency

Shahzeen Attari’s study of public perceptions of energy consumption and savings

Berkeley’s PACE program

Exergy at the Science Museum of Minnesota