The Potential, and the Pit Falls, of Energy Efficiency (Video)

Image credit: Alliance to Save Energy

When I wrote about the idea that burning wood could do more harm than good, it ignited a fierce debate. Yet most commenters agreed that energy efficiency and concervation have to come first. Yet when John wrote about the Alliance to Save Energy back in 2006, he had decidedly mixed feelings—worrying about the "astroturfing" of the green movement. A new video from the Alliance has awoken some mixed feelings for me too, albeit of a somewhat different nature. Let me say from the outset that I am a pragmatist when it comes to morality and saving the planet. I don't care why corporations like PG&E; or Dow Chemical are campaigning for increased energy efficiency—we need all the help we can get—except so far as morality may influence outcomes.

My immediate concerns are more to do with the inherent limitations of energy efficiency, and with the danger of focusing too much on this one element of sustainability. While the video below rightly argues that we can achieve fantastic savings simply by using energy in a smarter way, it also contains some statements that highlight the pit falls of an efficiency-centric approach.

Take the statement by Kateri Callahan, for example, that people will be "driving farther and paying less". While this goal clearly has some advantages in terms of both economics and sustainability—it beats driving farther and paying (or polluting) more—it also hints at a more complex problem. Known as the Jevons Paradox, there is some evidence to suggest that increases in efficiency can also lead to increases in consumption, as the costs of a particular activity fall.

The problem is not insurmountable—the Rocky Mountain Institute has already published a great piece on Treehugger about beating the energy efficiency paradox. (See also part two of beating the energy efficiency paradox.) It is, however, a reminder that an increase in efficiency will not deliver reduced pollution unless it is coupled with a decrease, or at least a stabilization, in usage.

To some degree, ragging on the Alliance to Save Energy for concentrating on, errm, saving energy is a little like complaining that the League of Conservation Voters is not out campaigning about health care. Nevertheless, it is important that we remember that no tactic—be it increasing renewables; improving efficiency; or encouraging conservation—will mean anything without a clear picture of our overall strategy and goals.

So by all means, let's declare this next decade the Decade of Energy Efficiency. But let's also declare it the Decade of Conservation and the Decade of Renewables. While we are at it, let's also declare it the Decade of Shutting Down Coal Plants; the Decade of Giving Up on Tar Sands, and the Decade or Restoring our Dilapidated Ecosystems. The Alliance to Save Energy, and its members, will be an important part of that struggle, but they won't define it.

More on Energy Efficiency
Americans Don't Know How to Save Energy. And the Green Movement is Partially to Blame.
Jevons Paradox and Energy Efficiency
Beating the Energy Efficiency Paradox (Part I)
Beating the Energy Efficiency Paradox (Part II)
Survey Indicates Americans Deluded on Energy Efficiency. Are They Really?

Tags: Activism | Energy Efficiency | Global Climate Change | Renewable Energy | United States