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Sierra Daily

Aug 24, 2011

Wasted Efficiency


No, it isn't a young John Muir. The guy at right is William Stanley Jevons, a 19th century English economist and formulator of Jevons' Paradox, which holds that when technology makes the use of a resource more efficient, use of that resource tends to increase rather than decrease. At the time, the argument was over the rate of coal burning. Nearly 150 years later, it still is.

Below is a chart from the Pew Center on Global Climate Change (via the invaluable Brad Plumer) showing how energy is used in American homes. Most notably, a huge chunk goes to air conditioning (an expense that is increasing as climate change makes extreme temperatures more routine). But air conditioners are becoming vastly more efficient--as are lights, refrigerators, etc. Homeenergyuse1 
Sounds great, right? But here's the rub: Chart #2 shows home-energy use over time. Energy intensity is declining--that energy efficiency at work, reducing the per-square-foot cost. But thanks to the increasing gigantism of new U.S. homes, the size of the average house is increasing (nearly 20% since 1980), and energy use is increasing even more.

Here's Pew:

GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions from buildings have increased as building size has increased. In the residential sector, the number of homes and the size of these homes have been increasing over time. As homes grow larger, more energy is generally needed for heating, cooling, and lighting. Over time, homes also have added more appliances and consumer electronics.

Efficiency is still key, but it's only half the battle. We don't necessarily have to go as far as the couple below, but something's gotta give.


--Paul Rauber

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