Inefficient Efficiencies

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.]

29 thoughts on “Inefficient Efficiencies”

  1. Another good example of this phenomenon is per capita energy use for transportation, which has increased despite large improvements in vehicle efficiency.

  2. Shannon,

    I think you’re making a macro out of a microhill here. When it comes to household illumination people settle in to what they need and want.

    Some folks will use 100 watt bulbs everywhere because they want bright light but if the electricity cost per watt went down by half they wouldn’t run around replacing their 100 watt bulbs with 200 watt bulbs. I

    By and large people set their light fixtures and lamps where they need them within their domicile. They don’t leave sections of their homes unlit or grossly underlit to save electricity. When Hubby runs around putting CFLs wherever he can The Better Half isn’t, typically, going to respond with, “Oh, great! Now I we can afford to buy, install, and light that 3 kilowatt chandelier I always wanted in the dining room!” or “Oh, finally, we can get the kids those reading lamps we’ve wanted all these years!”

    On the national scale, however, it is a good bet that whatever consumption is saved via widespread use of CFL in households will be consumed by commercial activities in short order.

  3. Knuklehead,

    So I use less electricity for lighting than did my parents 30 years ago and they in turn used less than their parents? Doubtful. Emperically its easy to show that efficiency and energy use increase in tandem.

    The problem is deceptive exactly because people think of it the issue in the extreme short term. Replacing all the bulbs in you house configured as it is right now will definitely save energy but how will it influence your behavior months or years down the road? If you make future changes to your lighting (buying a new lamp, building a new house) will the greater efficiency of the bulbs make you more or less likely to add lights that you otherwise wouldn’t. If millions of people add an extra light or two every few years that adds up into a lot of electricity. (People who plan lighting on a large scale like office building architects create an even greater effect.)

    On the time scale of years or decades, greater efficiency leads to greater consumption. I haven’t found one counterexample to that rule.

  4. Well, yes and no.
    I agree, average residential customer, who doesn’t calculate luminescence levels in his home, would buy more light for less money, and not less light. In practice, he would just buy a replacement bulb for existing fixtures, and will not pay attention that the level of illumination in his room has jumped up, which was unnecessary. However, he’ll still save energy by buying the bulb less frequently – an average CF’ life is about 10,000 hours (vs. max 2000 for incandecent). Commercial customers operate by a different system: for a long time now they rely on lighting consultants/elect. engineers for lighting calculations. The amount of lighting fixtures that lighting consultant allows for the space is generally reduced when CF is the specified light source, and the consultant starts with necessary illumination levels: where the task performed requires 30 footcandels (say, in corridors), he places a lighting fixture every 10 to 14 feet; where the level should be 60 fc (general office illumination) – every 8 ft, etc., thus decreasing quantity of fixtures [this is very ballpark].

    There is a natural limit to the brightness that a human eye can accomodate. It depends on numerous factors, including contrast (luminescence levels in adjucent spaces, f.ex), age of the person, his health, etc. But on average, nobody wants to watch TV in the room that is lit like an operation room in the hospital. That’s why dimmers are so popular – people know instinctively, when they have excessive amount of illumination.

    To get a more or less accurate idea, if the energy saving hypothesis will work, I think it’s useful to ask facility managers of the big commercial real estate Co: they can see electric bills savings in hard cash every quarter when thousands bulbs on the 40-story skyscraper they manage are changed.

  5. If millions of people add an extra light or two every few years that adds up into a lot of electricity. (People who plan lighting on a large scale like office building architects create an even greater effect.)

    You have very little experience with architects, aren’t you? Architects think rationally, Shannon, unlike the laymen. They deal with budgets, and usually very happy to learn that this or that new lighting source (SF, LED, Xenon, etc), supplying better illumination levels, makes possible to use less lighting fixtures = less money for general illumination = more money for architectural details/construction.

    I am engaged in precisely this activity as we speak: replacing 5 huge custom chandeliers for a courthouse with 4, using more efficient lamps.

  6. I do not know how you can separate out electricity usage for lighting from all other uses. Surely you are not assuming ceteris parebus that all other usage remains unchanged.

    I grew up listening to FDR’s fireside chats and since that time the number of non-light bulb things in my home that use electricity has grown exponentially – TVs, computers, sound systems, guitars, blankets, coolers, air conditioners, heaters, cameras, battery chargers, beds, tooth brushes, tools (saws, clamps, rulers, chisels, screwdrivers and even hammers), frying pans, blenders, mixers, juicers, water testers, can openers, knife sharpeners, pencil sharpeners and vibrators as big as a bed and as small as a pinky.

    Homes today ain’t hardly any brighter than they were when I last listened to FDR, but people do keep their lights on longer into the night

    I’m waiting for computer driven interactive holographic imagery so I can have an actual fireside chat with the President next to my own fire (electric logs) and I can talk to him real personal because his image will be setting right there and he’ll be programmed to answer. Although when that stuff comes about I’d rather talk to Cameron Diaz and burn somemore electricity.

    Maybe I’ll have them both over.

  7. Well, improved efficiency gives us the choice between conservation (getting the same from less) or productivity (getting more from the same.)

    I think we are all going to choose the latter right? After all, what would we do if we chose the former? Start closing down Power plants?

    And you can’t explain that away by some cheap shot about our selfish human nature. Take the $500 Model T, for instance. Nobody would take one over a $10K civic. They are dirty and unsafe (heck, they wouldn’t even have seatbelts) and their mileage would suck.

    Productivity is the logical choice.

  8. Tatyana,

    Speaking as an architect, if you had to retrofit a building that had not been updated in 50 years don’t you think you would add more lighting? As the cost of lighting decreases it becomes used for less immediate concerns such as safety and security. The standard degree of lighting now is much higher than it was then. You would likely find that even with greater efficiency the building would use more electricity that it did before the retrofit just for lighting.

    I used lighting as the example because the article keyed of it but the same effect shows up in every technology. Look at computers. The ratio of logical operations to watt has increased by several orders of magnitude in the last twenty years yet the amount of electricity used by computing devices has not remained flat or decreased, instead it has soared. Ditto for internal combustion engines. We use more gasoline per capita today than we did in 1970 even after 35 years of a successful maniacal pursuit of fuel efficiency.

    Like I said, the idea that greater efficiency leads to greater consumption is counterintuitive but the historical evidence is very clear. I would be more than willing to entertain any counterexamples that people could offer.

  9. It is certainly true as a general principle that equipment that conserves energy, which therefore makes energy use cheaper, will lead to use of useful equipment rather than less energy use. This is the history of the last 2.5 centuries, where per capita energy use has increased geometrically. Nonetheless, on the particular issue of lighting of inhabited spaces, it seems probably that there is an optimal level that has already been reached, as a matter of biology,and that this level will be sustained with the newer bulbs, as Tatyana suggests. In any case, if the new bulbs really are “just as good” it is a good idea to switch to them.

  10. One aspect of this phenomenon is the size of many of the new homes being built. New, more efficient furnaces, better windows, more efficient lighting, better insulations. . . they all make a larger house more affordable and comfortable. It would seem that in this area many Americans have chosen to use the increase in efficiency to enable them to buy a bigger house.

  11. There are probably some to “greater efficiency will lead to more energy use.” For example: suppose someone invented an aluminum-smelting process that was 100X more efficient than the current power-hogging methods. Reduce aluminum prices would lead to more use of aluminum, ie in auto bodies..but the primary material which would be displace, steel, is also pretty energy-intensive in its production.

    The new process might well lead to a net savings in energy.

  12. Shannon, that’s a sum of more than one component: you save energy and use the available savings to get something else; in your example with the 50 yo building – more safety and security devices/measures.
    You save on energy-efficient bulbs, you can now afford bigger home.
    In all cases you gain something else; it’a a quality of life issue.

    Yes, we spend more on energy-consuming mechanisms than in Dickens’ times, but we live so much more comfortably than in Dickens’ times.

  13. So Walmart using its market strength to reduce the need to build a couple of power stations for a few years is a bad idea? I get the impression from your post that” since we will burn it anyway this stupid”.
    As a user of CFL I think you are mistaken.

  14. The portion of my electric bill that is due to light has got to be trivial. I use cfls becasue I hate having to replace lamps that burn out all the time. I’m quite certain the time and aggrivation saved are far more valuable than the power cost saved.

  15. Changingbulbs would help. Changing from 75s to 60s would help etc But that one small change is hardly going to solve a growing problem
    I note too that WalMart once prided itself on having goods made only in America and now have items made only in China…all things change. Except our growing use of energy and cost of college tuition

  16. Hmmm, I have a pretty modest home now and have no fewer than 12 (30/40 w) lights in our kitchen; growing up blue collar on the far south side I believe there might have been two (70 watts) in that room.

  17. Tatyana,

    you save energy and use the available savings to get something else;

    Yes, but the counterintuitive effect is that you use more or whatever technology grows more efficient. In the case of lightbulbs, greater efficiency of lightbulbs leads to the use of more lightbulbs and more electricity for lighting. If people just switched electricity consumption to something else that would be okay. Conservation via efficiency would work but it does not.

    Like I said, can you name any technology were greater energy efficiency lead to flat or deceased energy use? I can’t find a single example and I have looked. We can theorize about how people behave but eventually we have to compare that against reality.

  18. jrdoll,

    So Walmart using its market strength to reduce the need to build a couple of power stations for a few years is a bad idea?

    I’m just saying that the projected energy savings won’t appear. We have been trying to push conservation via efficiency since the “energy crises” of the 70’s (really since the beginning of the industrial age) and it has never panned out.

    In the late 70’s, the experts degreed that electricity consumption in California would never increase due to energy constraints and improve efficiency. As a result, California stopped building new power plants. Well, actual consumption exploded and California found itself over a barrel by the early 90’s. Guessing wrong has big consequences.

  19. As someone who managed retail stores before law school, I feel compelled to take a crack here.

    When you manage a store (and to a lesser extent when you are in higher positions) you look for ways to minimize costs.

    As a store manager, the two costs you have that you can best manage are utilities and wages.

    Stores have policies about what temperature you can set the thermostat to, and have automatic lighting timers (which can be a pain around Christmas with extended hours, let me tell you).

    No one is doing this for the efficiency. It’s simply to cut down on costs. Wal Mart has made the bet that the higher up front cost will be offset by lower lighting costs in the future. The phenomenon you describe just isn’t going to apply within the company because anything you can do to cut the cost of sales improves your net profit thereby increasing your (and your boss’s) bonus.

  20. So, more WalMarts use more energy – that doesn’t mean savings aren’t real. If the margin is higher some stores predicted to have a thinner profit margin might be profitable enough to be built. At some point, of course, we are all going to be Wal-marketed out.

    Lighting is not as bright as in my youth and it is partially because we don’t want it to be. I associate fluorescent bright white midnights with sad corner cafes and institutions – you know, mental hospitals, prisons. Most of us don’t want that. (Or do I just have peculiar associations?)

    On the other hand, our house, built during WWII, didn’t have an outlet in a large dining room & the only lights in the living room are in wooden sconces pointed at the wooden ceiling. Twenty years here & I still feel like that dark room has guys from 40’s film noir in some corner – or perhaps bears, hell, it seems like a cave. If the guy ever gets around to it, we’ll have ceiling lights in the living room; we never thought about electricity – it just won’t be that much. And of course there will be dimmers – which those WWII people didn’t have.

  21. Jared Sandberg is the best writer on the Wasll Street Journal. I often find myself reading his column without noticing the by-line and thinking: “Gee, this is very good.” Here is an excerpt from one he wrote a couple of years ago about flourecent lights.

    Miserable on the Job?: It Could Be the Lighting By Jared Sandberg From The Wall Street Journal Online June 11, 2004:

    George Tobia’s lighting epiphany came 13 years ago when, sitting in his office as the setting sun cast a rosy glow, it occurred to him to turn off the 12 fluorescent bulbs over his head. Suddenly awash in natural light, he said to himself, “This feels so good.” …

    The fax machine may be maddening and the computer may promote hostility, but no office gear can put you in a funk as quickly as fluorescent lighting. At best, it provides the light of a cloudy sky. At worst, it’s the source of physical maladies, and a creepy and synthetic downer. Far from the come-hither glow of candlelight, fluorescent bulbs cast a hell-and-back pall over everyone. . .

    Commercial builders love fluorescent lights because they’re so efficient. They run on about a quarter of the electricity that incandescent bulbs require, and they last roughly 10 times as long. The problem is, most office workers end up getting a lot more fluorescent light than they need, pretty much canceling out that efficiency. Many companies also leave their lights on all night long, probably because no one can find the switch. It’s an example of how corporations, as they attempt to maximize efficiency, often minimize it instead.

    “The lighting in most offices is much brighter than it needs to be, especially with computers,” producing glare and eyestrain, says James LaMotte, a professor of optometry at the Southern California College of Optometry.

    “People apply efficient lighting stupidly,” adds Naomi Miller, who runs her own design firm and formerly worked at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Lighting Research Center. “There are a heck of a lot of offices that are very badly lit.”

  22. Perhaps there is a biological parallel to the “efficient consumption” phenomenon.

    The human body quickly adapts to a decline in caloric input (dieting) by slowing its metabolic rate. It has the same reaction to an increase in calorie use (exercise).

    Cutting electricity consumption seems as difficult as losing weight.

  23. Shannon, but I (and numerous commenters here), just pointed out to you the examples – they are not in the academia, or articles, or buried in books – when more efficient lamps make people consume less of them.
    Not to consume less light, but less lamps.
    Every facility manager, like Mr.Jenkins above, would tell you – if there is a possibility to cut costs, be it thru technology or better organization, they will do it. But they have to weight other factors in the budget.

    In March I’ve participated in a project of surveying fire egress stairs at biggest in US office building (8 stairs, 54 floors each) In some instances, light meter showed only 2 footcandles illumination at the step level (below the code requirement), so the management asked us to propose measures to fix it. To keep this comment [relatively] short: they considered 2 choices.
    -to get new fixtures, with 1 T5 lamp in each (excellent new fluorescent tube), placed below handrail level – most efficient choice, functionally.
    -to add 1 more traditional fluorescent fixture (like the ones Ginny was talking about) on existing J-boxes way up, at the ceiling – least efficient functionally

    They made the second choice, even knowing that will add more maintanance costs (frequent relamping) to their budget, and that the illumination level will raise very insignificantly.
    Because the first choice meant more union elictrician labor, and the price tag exceeded all potential savings from the second choice.

  24. Recently saw a graph of total electricity usage in the US.

    Manufacturing and business use was almost flat, with a slow growth for the last 40 years.

    Housing use has grown significantly, mainly in line with the increasing size of houses and the increase in appliances.

    Marketing had the greatest growth. Can we say “Malls?” I remember an interesting factoid, (which may be actually true,) that the Mall of America in Minnesota has no heating costs and their air conditioning costs go down in winter.

  25. Tatyana,

    I (and numerous commenters here), just pointed out to you the examples

    Your examples all relate to existing installation where new more efficient lightbulbs replace older models. Your examples show how efficiency appears to lower energy consumption in the immediate short term. I think such gains are ephemeral at best and overall rather illusionary.

    Your examples don’t explain why our per capita consumption of electricity used for lighting has steadily increased since the invention of the lightbulb. I am looking for an example of wherein improvements in energy efficiency in a technology led to lesser overall consumption of energy by that technology. I don’t care about reduced cost but actual reductions in the overall consumption of moving electrons.

    (Factoid: The cost per lumen for lighting has dropped 10,000 fold since 1800 and we use vastly more energy for lighting than then.)

    You make very reasoned, rational arguments based on direct professional experience and I respect that. However, economics has many perverse outcomes that defy common sense and experience and I argue this is one such instance. Conservation via efficiency is a dangerous concept because it produces the opposite outcome than everyone expects.

  26. John J…in the typical retail chain, are utility costs actually measured & allocated down to the store level? Observation suggests that many store managers don’t care about this expense. I’m talking about things like outside doors wide open in the middle of summer, with the a/c wooshing out. And the local B&N where one area is 15 degrees colder than the rest of the store..obviously there is an air distribution problem and the vents need to be adjusted, but it’s been like that for several years.

  27. Shannon,

    This has become a bit of a silly argument and this thread has probably aged out by now, but nonetheless…

    Your statement that increasing efficiency does not lead to reduction of overall consumption of whatever is accurate.

    But lumens per capita per household is a particularly bad example to use to make that case. If the kilowatt-hours per lumen per capita per household drops we will not see a vast increase in lumens per capita per household in response to that. Households will, of course, continue to increase the household per capita kilowatt-hours consumption of electricity but that will be because we continue to increase our use of electrical appliances (divos, dvds, gameboys, pda’s, computers, cell phones, etc, etc, etc) and not because we add more lighting as we switch to more efficient lighting such as CFLs or LED or whatever. Light technology such as CFLs which cut the per lumen watts by big amounts such as 2/3 or 3/4 (or LEDs which yield 80 or 90 percent reductions in watts per lumen) will reduce the household watts per lumen per capita number without increasing the household lumens per capita number. We will not see anything anywhere near a doubling or tripling of household per capita lumens in response to a 2/3 improvement in the electrical efficiency of household lighting.

    I’d bet on it. Apparently you wouldn’t ;)

    Or try it this way… Let’s say your annual household requirement for driving mileage is 25,000 miles. Let’s further say that you have older and/or large autos and your average mileage is 16 mpg in total. If you can afford to purchase new autos that raise you average to 24 mpg and still meet your needs (a 50% gain in fuel efficiency) you are very unlikely to increase your annual driving to 37,500 miles because of that. You’ll pocket most of the fuel savings or, more likely, use the money for other things you need or want. Over time autos may be added to the household to meet the needs of young adults or whatever and household fuel consumption might rise back to previous total levels but that will not be because you are using more fuel efficient autos – it will be because your household driving requirements have increased. You would satisfy your driving needs even without the increased fuel efficiency.

    Someone above put it very well. CFLs used in households represent a true efficiency gain. We’ll get the same for less (we don’t need or want more lumens per household). Improved fuel efficiency for autos, at least for households, has been a productivity gain, we’re getting more for the same (we want and need more but we get it for the same cost).

    Eventually both per household fuel consumption and per household electricity consumption will stabilize. There are only so many hours per day to spend driving or playing video games or surfing the net. We’re on the verge of seeing some significant efficiency gains for appliances such as lighting and computing. Lighting is roughly saturated per household. Computing will be sooner or later. When we reach four cores per capita per household I suspect we’ll have “enough” ;)

    Of course by then household demand in India and China will more than consume whatever savings but in a couple hundred years or so they’ll be saturated also. Just wait a while and it will all mellow out and stabilize!

  28. David Foster: yes, everything a store uses is allocated to that store. Even inventory has a “cost” to the store (it’s a pure book cost, because the company itself fronts the product). It’s all a part of your cost of sales.

    The base measure of any store is total sales less cost of sales.

    Now, the local store doesn’t get the bill or anything like that. That’s all taken care of centrally with the accounting department of most companies. But that cost is billed to the store. Many managers don’t know or don’t care (or, in some cases, can’t do anything about it), but I know *I* always did (again, I liked bonuses).

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