Energy Efficiency's False Hope


Only behavioral change will reduce energy consumption.

Fortnightly Magazine - May 2013

Energy efficiency is our national policy. We have huge programs like EnergyStar, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and various energy codes and standards. All of these programs assume that increased energy efficiency will reduce our energy use.

Many Americans believe this is important because, as we burn fossil fuels, we are pumping carbon dioxide and other pollutants into our air faster than natural systems can absorb them, changing our climate. Many of us also remember the price shocks of the 1970s—the days of lines and hoses. We hope that energy efficiency will slow or mitigate pollution and climate change, and also protect us from future price shocks, by reducing our energy use.

In spite of all the hype about energy efficiency, it hasn’t reduced our overall, per person energy use. According to the Energy Information Administration, the average American uses the same amount of energy per year as we did back in 1969.1 Gasoline consumption has increased 550 percent between 1945 and 2006.2 Overall energy use in the average American home is about the same as in 1978.3

On average, our homes and businesses use more and more electricity. For example, Edison Electric Institute data show that average per-meter residential and commercial electric consumption has increased each year since at least 19284American industry reduced average electric use per meter by one-third between 1998 and 2008, likely due to off-shoring energy intensive production and the Great Recession. These data about electric use don’t include the contributions from on-site cogeneration or on-site renewable energy sources, such as solar hot water, solar electricity, and wind power.

The number of Americans has increased since 1960 by more than 1-1/2 times, the number of electric customers doubled since 1971,5 and the number of vehicles has increased by more than 2-1/2 times.6 Our end uses of energy have increased more quickly than efficiency can reduce our overall energy consumption. If reducing energy consumption is an important policy goal, then we need something much more effective.

Efficiency Blowback

Energy efficiency proponents argue that much more energy would be used if it weren’t for all the efficiency programs already in place. While that may be true, efficiency advocates can’t prove that energy efficiency has reduced overall energy use or lowered carbon dioxide and other emissions. Efficiency promoters now don’t cite overall energy reductions. Instead they cite the disconnected, irrelevant, pro-growth ratio of energy use per dollar of GDP.7 Meanwhile, 2012 was the warmest year on record for the lower 48 states.8

If efficiency programs worked, our use of electricity should have decreased with efficient microwaves, lasers, fiber optics, fluorescent and diode lighting, sensors, heat pumps, and computerized controls. But it didn’t. Our gasoline consumption should have decreased with efficient, aerodynamic car shapes, radial tires, fuel injection, speed limits, CAFE standards, the Interstate highway system, front wheel drive, automatic speed controls, laws allowing right turn on red, and even the Internet (through telecommuting). But it didn’t.

Worse, energy efficiency has subtle characteristics that tend to increase our use of energy and other resources—just the opposite of what we expect. Let’s call this “efficiency blowback.” The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines blowback as “an unforeseen and unwanted effect, result, or set of repercussions.” How does efficiency blowback work?

First, energy efficiency doesn’t limit our energy use. It lets us waste as much energy as we want, as long as we waste it efficiently. For example, three-quarters of us commute to work alone in our cars.9 How important is miles per gallon if our cars carry only one quarter of possible passengers? Adding three passengers would triple the miles per gallon, per passenger. Their three cars could remain parked. Thankfully, our Prius gets us off the hook. More efficiency is palliative because it doesn’t challenge our wasteful lifestyles; it justifies them. Blowback.

Second, energy efficiency doesn’t address the rate of our energy use. Efficiency is a ratio of energy input to some kind of output. Watts of electricity go in, lumens of light come out. A gallon of gasoline goes in, miles-traveled comes out. Applying an efficiency ratio to slow the rate of energy use is a mismatch of ratios to rates. Rates involve time; efficiency doesn’t. One such rate is the tons of carbon dioxide we pump into our atmosphere per year. 2012 was the highest rate ever.10 More miles per gallon can’t lower the rate of carbon dioxide emissions because the problem results from gallons of gasoline burned per year, not the ratio miles traveled per gallon. The miles-per-gallon ratio is disconnected from the increasing rate of carbon dioxide emissions.

Another troublesome rate is tons of fish caught per year, resulting in the depletion of whole species in our oceans. Is more efficient fishing the solution? Efficiency disconnects the problem from the solution. That’s blowback. Optimization isn’t minimization. The solution to over fishing is no fishing, in other words, fishery closure.

Third, energy efficiency applies to both one specific end use and also to many. Lumens per watt refers to one theoretical lamp. “Per” means “for each” or “with respect to every member of a specified group.” So, one compact fluorescent lamp is as efficient as a hundred compact fluorescent lamps. From an energy efficiency point of view, it doesn’t matter how many individual end uses of energy there are. In contrast with energy efficiency promoters, everyone else knows that the more end uses of energy there are, the greater the total energy usage is likely to be.

Promoting energy efficiency without addressing increasing end uses of energy is like campaigning against prostitution by building more brothels. 

Behavior Trumps Technology

Energy efficiency applies to things, not people. It applies to lamps, vehicles, appliances and buildings. Yet, we know that our behavior is much more important than the things we buy. If we want beautiful music, the musician is much more important than the instrument. We build a certified, energy efficient, green building but provide more training to a secretary than the lowly building operator. Do we really think that some kind of automatic, computerized building management system is better than a person? Apparently so, from an efficiency point of view. Energy efficiency is a technical resolution that no longer involves our behavior.

Of what value, for example, is an argon-filled, triple-glazed, thermal-breaked, Low-E window if it’s left open for ventilation in the winter? Technology is not energy; the emphasis on efficient technology marginalizes the importance of behavioral change. What we have is much less important than how we use it.

Additionally, energy efficiency justifies the resources wasted through planned obsolescence. Efficiency improves technology by making things smaller and quicker. It packs our technology with new features, advantages and benefits. The efficient stuff we buy becomes obsolete with even newer stuff, which is why we landfill a million operable cell phones each week. More efficient products are fads and fashion, making the old stuff obsolete. As a result, all products seem temporary, prototypical. Ever-stricter federal energy standards increase the rate of landfilling obsolescent products, all in the name of increased efficiency. Think of the waste stream of old-style fluorescent tubes and ballasts, for example. Just a few decades ago, we used to think that 40-watt fluorescent tubes were very energy efficient!

More efficient stuff promotes unsustainable business growth. Efficient products are more expensive and can therefore be more profitable. In competitive business contexts, more efficient processes require perpetual retooling and upgrading. Continual investments are required to successfully meet and beat efficient processes by competitors. If one store adopts computers and barcodes, then the one with only a manual cash register is at a disadvantage. As one car manufacturer adds more sophisticated robots and automation, others must add them as well, and improve on them, to remain competitive. Competitive redundancy promotes growth but doesn’t save energy. Doing more with either more or less is a growth model.

Since they’re on the cutting edge, more efficient products and processes originally have a premium cost because they’re unique. Returns on the investments in such technology require research, development, mass production, advertising, and growth, all of which stimulate consumption and increase environmental degradation. As a result, the features, advantages, and benefits—the output in an efficiency ratio—from the new stuff is much more apparent than the landfilled prototype failures or the energy and other resources, the waste, carbon dioxide, and other byproduct inputs in the efficiency ratios. Only the outputs are marketed and advertised—the efficient features, advantages and benefits. The higher price for the more efficient lights and appliances is the reason that electric utilities offer rebates for more them. They cost more than the less efficient versions. Rebates reduce the cost and promote consumption. If energy efficiency made as much sense as the efficiency zealots say, the rebate bribes and public benefit fund extortions wouldn’t be necessary.

We’re adding more efficient end uses of energy faster than efficiency can reduce our energy use. Newer versions of technology are adapted at an ever-faster rate. Consider the evolution of telephones—large, wood wall phones with crank-up generators evolve into rotary style phones, then push-button tone calling, wireless, cellular, and now smart phones and tablets—each generation loaded with more and more efficient features, advantages, and benefits. Yet, the energy used by the increased number of new phones overwhelms the greater efficiency of each phone, because each successive generation of new technology proliferates faster than the last did. Smart phones are adopted quicker than cell phones were. DVDs quicker than VHS tapes. MP3s faster than CDs. Flat panels send CRTs to the landfill. Each new product is more efficient than its predecessor, in one way or another, and promotes unsustainable growth and waste.

Once purchased, more energy efficient products lower the cost of using energy services. Increasing the efficiency of a process or product usually lowers operating costs and increases consumption. Efficiency puts energy on sale. As the cost of operation falls, consumption is increasingly justified. Lowering the cost of electricity and fuel increases their consumption. The only debate is how much. Some people call this the “Jevons Effect.”

The Negawatt Myth

The value of a more efficient product increases with its use. The more we use a more efficient device, the more we save. Efficiency is the cleanest source of energy, they say. Energy efficiency justifies profligate energy consumption.

Energy efficiency promoters claim that they are building efficiency power plants that generate “negawatts” of electricity,11 which they characterize as having a lower cost than generated megawatts. From an ordinary person’s point of view, this means that saving energy is the same as generating it. Generating power from efficiency might be an interesting and cute intellectual concept, but it means the energy saved is already earmarked as energy generated. Where’s the savings in that? Energy efficiency has become part of our productivist mentality because we describe it as providing the same benefits as from power generating stations, only with less guilt from wasteful usage.

When we use electricity, all of the power consumed is converted into heat—no matter what interim purpose it fulfills on the way. You could heat your house with light bulbs or sewing machines, for example. By replacing an incandescent bulb with a compact fluorescent or light emitting diode lamp, the heat that came from the incandescent light will have to be made up somehow during the heating season, either by more electricity or more fuel. Of course, the opposite holds true during the air conditioning season, but where heat is needed more, air conditioning is generally needed less. In a room that requires space heating, more efficient light bulbs simply shift the energy load to a different appliance.12

Part of the problem is that energy efficiency programs are imposed in a top-down policy process. Efficiency apparently requires codes, standards, government programs, utility programs, rebates, public benefit funds, and innovative product design. The experts decide the standards and codes. Efficiency promoters create a market for negawatts. Engineers and manufacturers decide product design, distribution and marketing to meet market demand. And on it goes without limit.

To use less energy, however, we don’t need a code, standard, improved product, better design, or regulation. Who needs rules to reduce energy use? Who needs a rule to turn off a light or turn down the heating thermostat? Using measurably less energy, as compared with more efficiency, needs no top-down mandates. A change in behavior is all that’s needed. A turned-off light bulb doesn’t have the glamour of one filled with bright, light emitting diodes, or mercury. Again, energy efficiency is a technical resolution or an ethereal commodity, the negawatt, which no longer involves us. We just follow expert advice, install the latest piece of hardware or software, and opt into a top-down scheme to produce negawatts.

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One aspect of top-down efficiency advice is the difference in attitude between a paternalistic efficiency expert and all us other people. The expert says opportunities for energy efficiency are like finding a $20 bill on the sidewalk in front of us.13 All we have to do is bend down and pick it up. Apparently, though, we average consumers are blind to the $20 bill. Or even if we see it, we’re too dumb or lazy to pick it up.

What this analogy ignores, however, is that increasing energy efficiency beyond the easy and obvious has diminishing returns. Efficiency zealots say the more efficiency, the better, forever and ever. But today’s energy using products and processes are generally much more energy efficient than their predecessors, and doubling the efficiency of an already-efficient product saves less energy than doubling the efficiency of an energy-hogging product—but usually at a much higher cost. For example, increasing vehicle efficiency from 10 mpg to 20 mpg saves more gasoline per mile driven than increasing efficiency from 25 mpg to 70 mpg.

Additionally, efficiency hides external energy uses. iPhone users know what it means to recharge a battery or answer a text message, but we have no obvious indication of the necessity of cell towers, data centers, or bandwidth. These external inputs of energy are relatively hidden in comparison to the features, advantages, and benefits of the phone’s functions. The same is true of compact fluorescent lamps (CFL) and light emitting diodes (LED). Incandescent bulbs are made of clearly visible brass and gas-filled glass. CFLs shine their efficient light with the help of phosphors, mercury, printed circuit boards, resistors, transformers, and more—all hidden in a plastic shell. Also invisible to us are harmonic distortion and poor power factor of CFLs and LEDs—costs that are borne by the utility and ultimately reflected in electric rates, but not immediately apparent to the end user who assumes the lower power draw is an unqualified benefit.14

Tune In, Turn Off, and Drop Out

Energy efficiency is a distraction that excludes the really important factors in energy consumption, like limitless population growth, technological advancement, economic growth, the electrification of almost everything, and the total, absolute, increasing gross energy use, with its resulting environmental pollution.

Only with serious limitations on our behavior can we hope to address these and other, even more serious issues. Examples include extinction of plant and animal populations, degradation of land, global spread of toxic compounds, ocean eutrophication and acidification, increased susceptibility to infectious diseases, depletion of groundwater and other resources, and resource wars. Strict conservation and behavioral changes are the only solutions. More efficient resource use is comparatively irrelevant and a distraction. It just doesn’t reduce energy use quickly enough.

Moreover, energy efficiency is an amoral blessing. Imagine constructing a completely unnecessary building, on virgin ground. The building could house harmful businesses that spread diseases, destroy the public welfare, and collect wealth from poor people. But, if we prove it’s energy efficient—with EnergyStar compliance, LEED platinum certification, all ostensibly sustainable and green—all its social harm is overlooked. This is how we justify making our wasteful military-industrial war machine more energy efficient.

So what should we do about energy efficiency?

Energy efficiency is an ambiguous concept that many people accept without question. A colleague writes that explaining efficiency to Americans is like explaining water to a fish.15 Energy supply and consumption choices affect almost everything we do, just like a fish swimming in water knows no other context. As our climate changes, and as we continue dumping toxins into our environment, perhaps all we have to do is wait until we are so fed up with false and ambiguous information that we elect and support better leaders than we have now. Electric utilities understand this. They promote efficiency up to the point when they face power shortages. Then they curtail load by asking their customers to shut down their uses of electricity. Turning stuff off works. If we think that climate change and environmental pollution are emergencies, we had better do the same.

Probably the best way to reduce energy use is to increase its price by taxing energy like we do tobacco, liquor, and gambling. The only time that Americans have significantly reduced their energy use was just after the OPEC oil embargo of 1973 and ’74.16 The price increases caused consumers to use less fuel without any of the energy efficiency technology that we have today. We could expect the same with higher energy prices now.

Another possible option is emissions cap and trade, except that such a strategy can allow acceleration of other types of energy generation that carry side effects beyond just atmospheric carbon, such as atmospheric methane, expanding nuclear waste dumps, and biomass dust in our lungs. Efficiency, however, eliminates the pressure for increasing energy taxes—convenient for politicians, efficiency promoters and funders alike. Efficiency lets us off the hook.

Until we elect leaders that can change energy policies for the better, the highest functioning alternative to increasing energy costs involves behavior improvements. For example, we can hold ourselves accountable for the energy and other resources we use in our homes and businesses. We can easily record our consumption of gasoline, electricity, water and heating fuels. By comparing our day-to-day, month-to-month, year-to-year, and neighbor-to-neighbor consumption, we can find out what reduces our energy use and what doesn’t.

If energy efficiency lowers our gross energy consumption, that’s a plus. If it doesn’t, then we can turn things off. Turning something off saves more energy than more efficiency ever does. That’s why most cars are parked and most lights are off.

Rather than continuing down the path of false high-tech promises, we should consider keeping the old technology instead of purchasing the new, more efficient stuff. We should repair and share products instead of building and buying new ones. Old technology is usually less expensive than new, more-efficient technology, and antiques can provide intrinsic value.

We should experiment with simple changes, and see what happens. Give away a car. Eat dinner by candlelight. Turn off the air conditioning and sit outside. Spend more time with the kids. Read a book or meditate instead of watching a movie. Go camping, biking, walking. Instead of social networking, get to know your neighbors face to face. Let’s eat together. Play games together. Garden together. Try public transportation; it’s a party on wheels.

And, let’s slow down. Efficiency justifies mobile, action-packed, electronically connected, computerized, robotized, automated, and wasteful lifestyles.

Instead, if we get in touch with our inner energy tortoise, we then might be able to beat that harried, highly efficient hare more often, and counter climate change and environmental pollution at the same time.



1. Energy Perspectives, 1949-2011, Energy Information Administration, accessed at

2. Energy Information Administration Independent Statistics & Analysis website, accessed at

3. “How Americans are Using Energy in Homes Today,” by Bill McNary and Chip Berry, Summer Study on Energy Efficiency in Buildings, ACEEE, 2012.

4. Statistical Yearbook of the Electric Power Industry (various volumes), Edison Electric Institute

5. EEI, Op cit.

6. U.S. Dept. of Transportation through

7. “How the Focus on ‘Energy Intensity’ is Hurting the Fight Against Climate Change,” by Chris Nelder, The Atlantic Cities, March 22, 2013.

8. “ Not Even Close: 2012 Was Hottest Ever in U.S.,” by Justin Gillis, New York Times, Jan. 8, 2013.

9. “ Commuting in the United States: 2009,” p.18, American Community Service Reports, U.S. Census Bureau.

10. “Trends in Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide,” Dr. Pieter Tans, NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory,  and Dr. Ralph Keeling, Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

11. “Megawatts vs ‘negawatts,’: when less is more,” IEA Energy: The Journal of the International Energy Agency, Feb. 19, 2013.

12. “Squeezing BTUs from Light Bulbs,” Carl Danner, Public Utilities Fortnightly, August 2006.

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13. “The $20 bill on the sidewalk,” Financing Efficiency blog, Oct. 19, 2011.

14. “Utilities suffer from CFLs’ poor power factor,” by Margery Conner, EDN Network, April 6, 2009.

15. Thomas Princen, The Logic of Sufficiency, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2005, pp. 342-43.

16. Annual Energy Review 2009, Table 1.5, U.S. Energy Information Administration.