New more efficient US homes eat up as much energy as they did a decade ago, because they are 30% larger

A number of years ago I disagreed with Martin Holladay at Green Building Advisor (I do this a lot) about The Myth of Resource Efficiency. He suggested that people would spend the money that they saved by having more efficient houses on having bigger houses, or that improvements in vehicle efficiency would lead to more driving, or even that improvements in refrigerator efficiency would lead to larger fridges.

I disagreed, suggesting that this Rebound Effect, or Jevons Paradox, wouldn't happen because the rising cost of energy would eat up those savings. And besides, how do you squeeze in a bigger fridge?

In the four years since I have been proven wrong again and again, from LED lighting to flat screen monitors, and even to refrigerators. People have consistently figured out new ways to waste energy with new technologies or just use more, because they can.

Now, via Wendy Koch, I see new data that show that our houses are 30% larger but consume just a bit more energy than houses built a decade ago. All of that work to improve construction standards and insulation, and the savings? A big nothing, because it all went into house size and air conditioning.

The data are just depressing. More square footage, more appliances, more of everything. The Energy Information Adminstration writes:

RECS data show that newer homes were more likely than older homes to have dishwashers, clothes washers, clothes dryers, and two or more refrigerators. Newer homes, with their larger square footage, have more computers, TVs, and TV peripherals such as digital video recorders (DVRs) and video game systems. In total, newer homes consumed about 18% more energy on average in 2009 for appliances, electronics, and lighting than older homes.

Four years ago Martin Holladay proposed a way out of this problem:

I'm calling for the voluntary adoption of a simpler lifestyle: one with less work, fewer possessions, and more leisure time. A graceful transition to such a lifestyle would be the greatest possible gift to our children and grandchildren.

At the time I thought he was dreaming; now I think he is right.

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