Shuji Nakamura in San Francisco in early 2012, shortly before
the launch of Soraa. Photo by Russell Abraham.
The Jevons Paradox or rebound effect is beginning to look like the Nosferatu of pop theories on energy and sustainability. No matter how many times a stake is hammered through its heart it just keeps popping up periodically out of the grave. For those of you who are not familiar with it, it goes like this, more or less: energy efficiency measures and technologies actually end up causing more energy use because they make energy cheaper. So basically, energy efficiency causes the opposite of its intended goal. How's that again? This is one of those ideas that may appear so appealing because it's supposedly "counterintuitive" - well intentioned but misguided efforts to do environmental good or right environmental wrongs can certainly go horribly wrong when they're not well thought out. (Things like introducing invasive cane toads to Australia to control invasive cane beetles come to mind right away). And of course upon apprehending this counterintuitive idea we can feel swell by congratulateing ourselves on knowing the real story and pass it on- it's a poisonous meme. Jevons is consistent with "neo-classical economics" and ideas like "free markets" and "trickle down theory" that have repeatedly been shown to be pretty much worthless but persist because they provide simplistic explanations and justifications for the undue concentration of wealth.
The person doing the most stake hammering is David Goldstein of NRDC, who over the years has done an admirable job of debunking rebound effect. His excellent and timely rebuttal to the Shellenberger and Nordhous piece, as well as several earlier pieces, spell it out clearly: rebound effects have not been demonstrated to be significant, if they exist at all. I will add to this clearly reasoned argument just a few items from my own unique perspective.
The first problem with this particular op ed at this particular time is that even though its claims are baseless it may have a deleterious effect on energy efficiency measures because of how the argument is constructed. Although the authors are careful to praise the Nobel prize winners, the effect of their argument is to imply that energy efficiency actually causes increased energy use, therefore people can't help concluding that all energy efficiency efforts are basically useless. Whether it's intentional or not (you decide after perusing the Breakthrough website), this conclusion plays quite well to oil, gas, and nuclear lobbies who would prefer to distract us from efficiency and get back to the business of burning fossil fuels and building unfeasible nuclear plants. The logical problem with the argument (one of the most common problems with data reported by media, and even with much science) is that it confuses causation with correlation.
According to Daniel Kahneman (2002 Nobel prize winner for economic sciences) in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, the reason this problem exists is that the human mind, in its fast thinking, emotional mode, constantly seeks causes and explanations for things that may show correlation but in reality are not causally related. Making decisions with this faulty logic may result in grave errors of judgement, a typical failing of humans both individually and in groups. So the fact that energy use is perceived to be growing in some areas may reflect the fact that populations with access to cheaper energy are themselves growing- it doesn't mean that cheap energy causes more overall energy use. A plausible outcome is that in addition to widely adopting LEDs, we will decide we have enough light and not increase our use of it- there are real limits to how much we really need after all. As Goldstein alludes to in his article, one very important consequence of efficiency measures and technologies is that when successful, as they have been in many global economies, they often serve to focus more attention on energy use in general and lead to further efficiency measures, the net effect of which is a reduction in energy use, the original point. So energy efficiency actually results in...saving energy. Whoa dude!
Shellenberger & Nordhaus' sloppy reasoning includes statements such as "The I.E.A. and I.P.C.C. estimate that the rebound could be over 50 percent globally" without providing any solid evidence of such. Statements like this certainly risk being misinterpreted by our "fast thinking" brains and lead to incorrect judgements about energy efficiency policy and technology.
There is one area of lighting in which new LED technology has resulted in overlighting with poor quality light, and that is street lighting, a serious environmental problem at the moment. From what I can gather about the causes for this, many municipalities in the US and Europe moved too quickly into adopting LED streetlight systems, in the interest of saving energy, before adequately understanding how to transition from the old technology to LEDs. This resulted in much light encroachment and light pollution with overly blue light, which is hated by many residents and may harm plants and other critters. But this was not caused by energy efficiency, it was caused by a lack of appropriate application of technology and poor planning.
Energy efficiency in many economic regions, including California, is in fact now the largest source of energy. New technologies that make significant efficiency possible on a large scale are rare- LEDs are the first new lighting technology of consequence to come along in a long time. Many of the "clean energy" sources that Shellenberger & Nordhaus claim are more important to invest in will take decades to scale, although prospects are good for solar and many renewables. And efficiency and clean energy are not opposing, either/or propositions - we need as much of both as we can get, as fast as we can get it. For the time being, we will be relying on fossil fuels for a very large share of our energy, and almost all efficiency efforts are worth considering and investing in, for many reasons. Slamming energy efficiency, especially now, when we have reached what can be perceived as a milestone in validating LEDs, is not doing any good for us or the planet.