On Stanley Jevons and LED Lights

Public Domain. Stanley Jevons

In a recent post on LED lighting, I raised the spectre of Jevons Paradox, paraphrasing Stanley by saying that "It is wholly a confusion to suppose that more efficient lighting leads to diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth."

Stanley Jevons wrote his book "The Coal Question" in 1865, at a time when there was some worry that Britain might run out of coal. It was then used to power very big and inefficient steam engines that pumped water out of mines; when James Watt developed his steam engine that used 75 percent less coal than the Newcomen engine it replaced, the common thinking was that the increased efficiency meant that they would burn less coal. Instead, clever engineers and inventors figured out an incredible number of new uses for steam power beyond just pumping water in mines. They put them to work in factories and in ships and on steel wheels, inventing the railway. Of course, coal consumption went up dramatically. This is Jevons' Paradox, or as it is also known, the rebound effect.

When it comes to energy efficiency, the rebound effect has often been used as a justification for doing nothing, since Jevons said greater efficiency would lead to greater consumption, not less. So why bother building more efficient cars if people will buy bigger ones, or build more efficient buildings, if people will just build bigger ones? Zack Semke of NK architects and formerly with Hammer & Hand, notes that the rebound effect is used by deniers and delayers of climate change.

The Jevons Paradox and its narratives are just too attractive to folks opposed to energy efficiency mandates to let the idea die, so a cottage industry of Jevons Paradox storytelling has emerged. That’s why you see Jevons crop up on the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal, in the writings of the libertarian Cato Institute, and in the agenda of the Breakthrough Institute.
Double fridge at Interior Design Show

Lloyd Alter/ Double Miele fridge at Interior Design Show/CC BY 2.0

Zack points out that when someone buys a Prius, they don't drive twice as far. They might go a little farther, but "70-90% of the efficiency improvements of the Prius still “stick.” He even demolishes my beloved fridge hypothesis, where I note that many people are buying monster double-wide fridges. But in fact, it is a very small subset of very rich people, and the power consumed by fridges continues to plummet.

US fridge energy use

© US refigerator energy use

Remember that if the Jevons Paradox were at work with fridge size that we should see fridge size spike just as energy efficiency improves, because energy efficiency supposedly causes greater consumption, not less. So, if the Jevons Paradox were true here we should see that red line spike upwards just as that blue line begins its free fall. But instead, we see that red line flatten out at just that moment. No evidence for the Jevons Paradox.

Zack makes really good points in his two articles, WHO’S AFRAID OF THE BIG, BAD JEVONS PARADOX? (CLIMATE HOPE PART I) and ON THE JEVONS PARADOX, CLIMATE, AND FIGHTING DEFEATISM- I am going to put Stanley to bed.

But are LEDs different?


Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0 However, I continue to believe that the LED revolution is different than, say the development of the hybrid Prius or the improvement in fridges. This is, like the Watt steam engine, a revolution in technology of the magnitude that Watt's engine was over Newcomen's. People are dreaming up new uses for them every day, like mounting LED displays over urinals.

LED covered building

LED Encrusted building/via Buildings are encrusted in them.

LED billboard

© Astral Billboard in Toronto Billboards shine all day.

Tim hortons

© Tim Hortons with wall of monitor menus Walls of them replace menus.

The New American Home

© The New American Home And even just in conventional lighting, people are using more than they ever considered before; this is being installed right now in the New American Home in Orlando.

LED carpeting

© LED carpeting Soon they will be embedded in the fabric of our homes and offices, like in this carpet. I suspect that we are just getting started with LEDs, and that all those little loads will add up over time.

On the other hand....

energy consumption

© Bloomberg
Adam Minter (of Junkyard Planet) and Nathaniel Bullard write in Bloomberg about how we are using less electricity than ever with our electronics, as smartphones and tablets keep getting smaller and replace TVs and PCs.

As Americans shift from big devices such as traditional tube televisions and personal computers to smaller mobile devices, electricity and resource consumption is declining rapidly. America's gadget habit has never been greener. This finding will probably surprise many readers but think, for a moment, about the devices each new smartphone replaces. Tablets ate your secondary TV, for instance, and with it the set-top box that accompanied it. Tablets also ate your laptop computer (after the laptop ate your desktop), and smartphones eliminate all of those devices together.

I would have thought that all these clever new tools (I have a phone, a tablet, and a laptop) would cumulatively add more consumption, but by using them instead of a big TV all the time, I am in fact using much less.

So perhaps Zack Semke is right, it is time to let poor Stanley Jevons rest in peace.