Instapundit links to a FastCompany article about Walmart’s pushing of the use of high-efficiency compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) as a means of cutting energy consumption. I like CFLs and use them in my home. Walmart’s effort represents an honest attempt to try to reduce energy consumption.
To bad this effort and all other efforts to reduce energy consumption via greater efficiency will never, ever work.
It seems counter to common sense to assert that greater efficiency does not reduce energy use. After all, if you use x watts to accomplish a task, then using a new technology that lets you accomplish the same task with x-y watts would automatically save energy. Yet, history shows the exact opposite pattern. Every single energy-using technology we employ today is vastly more efficient than the technology’s original form or even than that technology’s form of a few years ago. Modern incandescent lightbulbs use far less energy per lumen produced than did lightbulbs in use a hundred years ago, but our per capita consumption of energy used for lighting has soared. We have no reason to expect that using even more efficient lightbulbs will produce any other results.
Why do we get this seemingly perverse result? I think people make different economic choices than those who push conservation-by-efficiency think they do. In the case of lightbulbs, new high-efficiency bulbs give you two immediate economic options: (1) You can have the same amount of light for less money or (2) you can have more light for the same money. Conservationists assume most people make the first choice but history suggests that most actually make the second. After people get used to having a certain level of lighting it changes their expectations and behaviors. They begin to expect more lighting in more places for longer times. In a very short time, all the energy savings of greater efficiency disappear in wider usage.
The entire industrial age started with a great leap forward in energy efficiency. James Watt’s steam-engine was so much more efficient than the then-industry-standard Newcomb engine that Watt rented his engines out for the price differential between the renter’s old cost of coal and their new cost with Watt’s engine. If efficiency-conservation were correct, Watt’s new engine should have led to less coal consumption. It did not, to say the least.
Conserving energy via greater efficiency seems both obvious, easy and win-win for everyone but it simply does not work. This is but one of the many counterintuitive effects that frustrate our attempts to manage our energy policy.
[Note: I highly recommend Huber and Mills's "The Bottomless Well" as the best thing written on energy use ever.]