Getting nowhere fast
How having more stuff is eating up all the gains from being more efficient
Feb 13, 2015
Our houses are better (but bigger), and we keep burning more energy. (Graphic: U.S. Energy Information Administration)
It’s really quite remarkable, how much more energy-efficient everything is these days. Our houses are built to higher standards; our fridges use a fraction of the power they used to, our cars get better mileage — yet we are using more energy per capita than we ever have.
I am loath to bring up good old Stanley Jevons here. His theory, also known as the rebound effect, was that if things become more efficient, we use more of them. Even as our houses get more efficient, they get bigger and we fill them with more stuff, pretty much negating the efficiency gains. A few years back the Jevons Paradox became the darling of climate skeptics and others who wanted to kill the drive towards greater efficiency, so I am on dangerous ground here. However it just keeps coming up again and I fear they might be right. Amory Lovins argued against the point years ago using the fridge as an example:
After all, there is a maximum size to the refrigerator you can easily put in a kitchen and a limit to the number of refrigerators you need in your house. In short, improvements in efficiency have greatly outpaced our need for more and larger fridges.
Mmmm. Pie charts. (Graphic: Energy Information Administration)
Have a look at these pie charts from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Between 1993 and 2009, our heating and cooling used up less of our power, while our appliances, electronics and lighting went up from 24 percent to 34.6 percent of our overall consumption, and the total amount of energy used in a home went up. Flat screen TVs are more efficient than the old ones, but they got BIG. In fact, everything got big. The EIA notes the results of its recent survey:
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.
Stuff — more and more stuff. (Photo: Energy Information Administration)
Then, as Matt Power of Green Builder Media points out, we keep adding gadget after gadget, most of which are sucking power in standby mode. We buy wireless WiFi speakers instead of wiring them into a stereo that has a power switch. We buy cordless phones that are plugged into the wall as well as the phone outlet, TVs that most people don’t even realize have an on/off switch because they use the remote, computers that we leave on because booting up takes so long. Just at my desk right now I have nine devices running or charging, and I consider myself a minimalist about electronics.
And with the new Internet of Things and smart houses, it's just going to get worse. Every one of these little smart plugs is drawing electricity to keep that little receiver going so that it can listen for your instructions. It’s fascinating that so many of these new smart technologies are marketed as money and energy savers, yet they are all little energy sucks on their own. And it all adds up.
I see Stanley Jevons everywhere these days, even in the mens’ room, where there are now LED TVs serving ads over the urinals. There are LED-encrusted wallpapers and even snowsuits. LEDs are consuming milliamps in ways that nobody ever expected. As the data show, we manage to just keep using more energy to power more stuff in ways we just can’t even imagine.
It is a difficult subject for all of us promoting energy-efficiency; you start to ask yourself, what’s the point? All of the savings are lost to house size, air conditioning and gadgets.
It’s one of the reasons for promoting the whole minimalist, live-with-less movement; we're going to need a real cultural change if we're going to make any real difference in our consumption of energy and our resultant carbon footprint. Martin Holladay of Green Building Advisor, discussing the same issue a few years ago, suggested this:
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 was right.
And to make you feel better after this totally depressing post, here's a great video of a totally wasteful and pointless but very beautiful LED-encrusted snowsuit.
Link to Video: