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The Rebound Effect

On The Rebound: Why More Efficiency Doesn't always Save Energy

By now, many Americans are chubbily aware of the false promise of the low-fat cookie. People leapt to the conclusion that "low-fat" meant "no consequences." But in fact what happened was that since the cookies seemed guilt-free )"It's low fat! It won't hurt me!"), people tended to eat more of them than regular cookies, thereby keeping their waistline exactly the way it was, if not worse.

There's a similar phenomenon in energy, and it's one that explains a great deal about the country's energy habits and why we can't expect energy efficiency to solve all our energy problems. It even has a name--the rebound effect.

Back in 1865, a British economist named William Stanley Jevons noticed something weird going on in England's Industrial Revolution. The steam engine that drove the Victorian era's factories, ships, and railroads kept getting more efficient, so engines were able to do far more work with less coal. Yet coal use didn't drop--in fact, Britain was using more coal than ever before. Jevons concluded that the more efficient engine was actually encouraging people to use more coal. When steam engines became more efficient, they became cheaper to run, so people found new ways of using them--and also lost their incentive to conserve fuel. The better the engines got, the more coal Britain used.

This is what is now known as the rebound effect, or occasionally the Jevons paradox. Sometimes a new advance in efficiency can cut energy use when it's first introduced, but then people adapt and energy use climbs again. If you switch all the light bulbs in your house from incandescent to compact flourescents, your electric bill should go down. But because your bill has gone down, and since you know the flourescent bulbs use less energy, you may not feel the same pressure to turn the lights out when you leave the room. So because the lights are on longer, your electricity use rebounds--maybe not to the same level it was before, but enough so you're not getting the full benefit of the efficient bulbs.

Exactly how the rebound effect works is one of the most furious debates in the arcane world of energy economics, for obvious reasons. some people argue that this rebound effect undercuts the rationale for energy conservation. Essentially, they argue, why bother? No matter what you do, people will use more energy. Other economists argue that the rebound rarely cancels out the energy savings completely. You gain something from conservation, even if it's not everything you'd hoped.

Studies show the impact of the rebound effect depends on what's being made more efficient and whether or not you control the switch. Refrigerators are more energy-efficient than they used to be, and there has been almost no rebound effect at all. Think about it: Would having a more efficient refrigerator make you more likely to leave the door hanging open? Probably not. But in other areas the rebound can be pretty steep: up to 50 percent for more efficient air conditioning, 40 percent for water heaters, and 30 percent for space heating. Nobody wants to sweat any more than necessary, so if your air conditioner is cheaper to operate, you'll use it more.

There's also a rebound effect on auto fuel efficiency. After all, if you're driving an SUV when gas prices skyrocket, you may well drive less to save money. But if you trade in that SUV for a Prius, you're going to go back to your old driving habits. That was the whole point of changing cars: to do as much driving as you used to do at a price you could afford. Everyone agrees there's a rebound effect on cars; the big argument is about how much. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which sets fuel economy standards in the United States, assumes a rebound of 10 to 20 percent, but other estimates go anywhere from 6 percent to 30 percent.

Some experts contend these studies don't cover the full impact of the rebound. For example, maybe you'll take the money you save on more efficient appliances and spend it on even more appliances, like a second (or third) television or DVD player. Or maybe you'll get a more fuel-efficient car so you can afford a longer commute, buying a bigger house farther away from your job and using more energy on all fronts. All this is very hard to measure.

Most experts agree on two things about the rebound effect. One is that you can't count on getting the full benefit of more efficient technology. In other words, doubling fuel economy for cars doesn't mean you're going to cut gasoline use in half. And second, greater efficiency alone isn't going to solve our energy problems. If we're really serious about cutting energy use, we're going to have to look at other ways of changing behavior, such as imposing higher taxes or altering social norms so that people who use energy lavishly really are good and ashamed of themselves.

For a better understanding of the energy crisis and how you can help conserve energy while helping to protect the environment, read Who Turned Out the Lights? Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis by Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson.

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