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Energy | Ecotrope

The problem with energy efficiency

One of Clark Williams-Derry’s five thought-provoking ideas on The Daily Score blog reassures me that it’s not crazy to question energy efficiency as public policy (as I mentioned earlier): His No. 2 thought-provoking idea is that energy efficiency doesn’t always save energy:

“What happened to coal consumption when 18th century inventor James Watt introduced a new steam engine that was at least three times as efficient as its predecessor?

As this old post details, coal use didn’t fall — it skyrocketed!!  Suddenly, coal power was viable in dozens of applications where it wasn’t economical before — and despite the efficiency gains of the new engine, coal consumption shot through the roof.

That’s just one example among many of efficiency gains that don’t have the hoped-for effect. This post, for example, discusses how higher fuel economy standards for cars can lead to more driving — and hence more car crashes and other “externalities” like congestion, parking costs, and noise pollution. In the end, we save gas — but also exacerbate all of the other costs of a car-dominated culture.

Reading about the “rebound” and “backfire” effects of efficiency gains convinced me that policymakers can’t rely on technology alone to solve problems like climate change.  Instead, we need something more certain — like a firm emissions cap in a cap-and-trade system — to ensure that emissions will decline.”

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