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Reality Check: More Energy Efficiency Leads To More Energy Consumption

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Lloyd Alter, Mother Nature Network

Our homes are way more efficient than they used to be, but we’re using more energy per capita.

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 blame Stanley Jevons. 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. Many have argued that it’s not true; 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.
And we know what happened there — fridges just got bigger and bigger.
energy consumption
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.
appliances in houses
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.

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