Energy efficiency and the Jevons Paradox

 Asking what the energy efficiency of a domestic appliance is is the wrong question. The right question is, “what is its resource effectiveness over its life cycle”. How well does it contribute to reducing the ‘resource intensity of society’ as a result of the service it provides.


 Energy efficiency and the Jevons Paradox

Last week, President Obama ordered the DOE to set energy efficiency standards for many of our most common household appliances stating that this “will save consumers money, spur innovation, and conserve tremendous amounts of energy”.

According to the recently released Presidential memorandum, the DOE “is required to establish by certain dates energy efficiency standards for a broad class of residential and commercial products. These products are appliances and other equipment used in consumers’ homes and in commercial establishments”.

Energy efficiency regulations seem like they are becoming the first step of the Obama-Biden Administration in their attempt to lower carbon emissions.  The government is preparing legislation that will provide tax credits for everything from energy efficient homes to renewable energy to electric vehicles.  America seems to be moving in the direction of lowering its consumption of energy; a good thing right?

Not so’, William Stanley Jevons would argue.  Jevons wrote a book called The Coal Questionback in 1865, and basically stated that increasing the efficiency of a resource leads to an increased use of that resource. This simple statement was made concerning the introduction of the coal-fired steam engine.  As we developed more efficient ways to produce energy from coal, society simply used more coal.  Overall consumption of the resource increased.

Later economic theorists claimed that more efficient technology could create a rebound-effect, and that some of the efficiency gains would be wiped out by more demand for that resource”.  Is this what will happen to President Obama’s household appliance energy mandate?

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