Jevons Paradox and the Nobel Prize: Will LEDs really lead to a drastic reduction in electricity use?

LEDs in the bathroom
CC BY 2.0 Stanley Jevons goes to the bathroom/ Lloyd Alter

Now these are names we haven't heard for years, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute, media stars five years ago for their book about the death of environmentalism. They are in the New York Times, complaining about the Nobel Prize for the inventors of the blue LED, and in particular, the statement from the Nobel Committee that “Replacing light bulbs and fluorescent tubes with LEDs will lead to a drastic reduction of electricity requirements for lighting.” and “With 20 percent of the world’s electricity used for lighting, it’s been calculated that optimal use of LED lighting could reduce this to 4 percent.”

Without calling it Jevons Paradox, they note that the LED might well increase consumption of electricity.

The growing evidence that low-cost efficiency often leads to faster energy growth was recently considered by both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the International Energy Agency. They concluded that energy savings associated with new, more energy efficient technologies were likely to result in significant “rebounds,” or increases, in energy consumption. This means that very significant percentages of energy savings will be lost to increased energy consumption.

I used to disagree with this position, and argued the point with Martin Holladay of Green Building Advisor, suggesting that rising energy prices would solve the problem.

It is a smackdown between Adam Smith and William Jevons; when stuff is expensive, people use less of it. And prices are going to rise, whether we tax them or not.

tim hortons restaurant© Stanley Jevons goes for a coffee at Tim Hortons

I was wrong, and Martin was right. Every day there are new ways that LEDs are put to use, all of which consume energy where they never did before. I see it every time I go to a public washroom or a Timmy's, where the conventional menu boards have been replaced by a line of huge LED monitors.

On every highway, we now have digital billboards pumping out pixels day and night, probably killing people in the process; read New Study Finds Link Between LED Billboards and Likelihood of Highway Crashes

Cycling down the street, I have to share the road with a moving LED ad; see How greater efficiency leads to greater waste, or how Jevons' Paradox clogs the roads

In fact, the proof is in the data, which show that even though houses and appliances are more efficient, our average household energy consumption has gone up in the last ten years, notwithstanding our more efficient light bulbs, because our houses are 30% larger. Appliances, electronics and lighting have gone up 18%

Even snowboarders are getting into the game; see Jevons Paradox in Action: An LED Covered Snowsuit

In fact, without a dramatic rise in energy prices (not happening right now) or a dramatic reduction in personal income (recession? what recession?) it appears that Stanley Jevons, Martin Holladay and yes, even Shellenberger and Nordhaus, are probably right. Cheap, efficient LEDs might well lead to greater consumption of energy, not less.

Jevons Paradox and the Nobel Prize: Will LEDs really lead to a drastic reduction in electricity use?
Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger suggest that it won't, and for once, they might be right about something.

Related Content on