The Sacred Cow of Energy Efficiency is Really a Trojan Horse
If you follow Xcel, the Department of Commerce, the state legislature—really, anyone working on energy—you know that efficiency is the key to deep reductions in energy use. According to Nikiforuk, the International Energy Agency said energy efficiency could achieve 49% of the greenhouse gas reductions we need by 2030.
And it’s certainly true that we’ve made huge strides in energy efficiency in almost every type of electrified product. Computers are more efficient. Cars and planes are more efficient. Kitchen appliances are 75% more efficient than they were in the 1990s! We should be saving lots of energy, and be well on our way to lowering our carbon footprint.
But we’re not.
The truth is, increases in energy efficiency encourage more use. Stanley Jevons, a coal economist, noted years ago that efficiencies in technology encouraged industry to apply that technology to more and more activities. Jevon’s observation is called the Jevon’s Paradox. For example:
- A more efficient steam engine encouraged the proliferation of steam engines for other purposes, requiring even more coal.
- Improved fuel efficiency of airplanes resulted in cheaper fares and more people flying. Flying is now responsible for 4.9% of manmade climate change.
- Papermaking is 3 times more efficient (energy wise) than it was in 1965, so we now create 22% more documents—880 billion of them a year (just in the U.S.)!
- The LED light bulb is 70 to 80% more energy efficient, but that didn’t lower lighting costs; it led to LEDs being used in more applications and people and municipalities added more lights. So many more lights, in fact, that National Geographic reported that “the amount of artificial light coming from Earth’s surface at night has increased in radiance and extent by 2% every year for the past four years—driven by the rapid adoption of bright LEDs and development.” This is having serious disruptive consequences for both wildlife and for humans, interrupting sleep-wake patterns. It also impacts plant growth, plant flowering, and insect pollination. It’s a very big problem indeed.
Economists admit that energy efficiencies could wipe out between 20 and 50% of energy savings. Alone, energy efficiency is not going to result in the kind of energy —and carbon—reduction we need to address a changing climate.
Powering down is one of the core themes of the Transition movement. We need to use less fossil fuel power. Sure, be efficient when you use power – just flat out use less.
You can start by eliminating electricity-using products for functions that could be accomplished without electricity. Switch out an electric toothbrush for a regular one, a manual can opener for electric, air drying for hair drying and clothes drying.
Those little changes are only going to go so far. Then you’ve got to start using your imagination – and your courage. You’ve got to imagine what it would be like to live differently and then have the courage to buck the status quo. How could you give it a try?
- What if your sleep-wake schedule more closely fit daylight/night-time?
- What if you used light only where you needed it? Or carried your light with you from room to room?
- What if you took technology breaks?
- What if you had game nights and puzzle brunches instead of going out to the movies, or window shopping?
- What if… what if?
How Will We Power Down This Summer?
We made our biggest commitments to power reduction when we moved to the city, switched to mass transit, and installed solar panels, but I know we’ve fallen down on some of our energy reduction efforts. We haven’t seen a $5 power bill for awhile. We need to recommit.
- We’re going to do more solar cooking. We love the results and we’d like to be more adventurous, particularly with baking.
- We’re going to go back to living life unplugged. We’ll plug it in only when in use.
- We use the computer too much. Way too much! Not only is that unhealthy for us physically and psychologically; it contributes to our habits of over-consumption and online purchasing. We really, really need to:
- Institute a computer sabbath, one day a week when we don’t go online.
- Commit to shutting down at 7 pm.
- Stop a moment to choose the least energy-intensive technology. Our old desktop computer is not very efficient but we want to keep it out of the landfill as long as possible. Rather than using it to do all of our computer-related activities, we could make a point of doing some of those tasks on less energy-intensive devices. For example, checking Facebook on my solar-chargable phone. A tablet can also be solar charged, and would allow for more typing-intensive activities. We’re going to start a new habit of solar charging all batteries and technologies every day.
Encouraging Powerdown in Community
I can think of a few things I could do relatively quickly in my community life to try to implement changes outside my home.
- The first is small: it’s the light in the alley right outside my house. My old neighbor paid to have an EXTRA light in the alley. We now have new neighbors and I bet they don’t know they are paying extra. I’m going to ask them to discontinue that light.
- While I’m thinking of lights, I could talk to my city council member during his community open hours about reducing the overall number of street lights. We need to start weighing these damaging health effects into the equation.
- And then I’m going to ask the organizer of one of my monthly meetings if they can offer an online meeting option every month. Some of these meetings – attended by hundreds of people – are really far away and there is no mass transit option. We’d save a lot of gas and time for a lot of people if it could be simulcast.
What are some steps you can take to begin to power down?