The More Efficient We Get With Energy, The More We Use

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BY JACK DINI Most folks in developed countries try to be eco-friendly by recycling aluminum and glass containers, turning off lights, unplugging cell phone chargers, driving more fuel-efficient cars, upgrading attic insulation; the list goes on and on. But as Peter Huber and Mark Mills report, “efficiency doesn’t lower demand, it raises it.”

They explain that the pursuit of energy efficiency has been the “one completely consistent and bipartisan cornerstone of national energy policy since the 1970s.” And yet, even though overall energy efficiency has increased dramatically since that time, “demand has risen apace.” (1)


Cheap light bulbs let people plug in more lights. Silicon chips use so little power that they are everywhere and in aggregate their effect mounts up. A search engine may not use as much energy as a steam engine, but lots of them soon add up. Energy efficiency has been rising for a very long time and so has energy consumption. (2)

America’s experience of rising income and rising energy use will be duplicated by other countries around the world. Several billion people are eager to start Googling and watching big-screen, high-definition TVs. They also want cars, air-conditioning, computers, and refrigerators. As they begin buying these items, electricity demand and oil demand will rise. (3)

Let’s look at people in countries seeking to upgrade their standard of living. Jeff Tsao and colleagues have postulated that instead of leading to reduced energy consumption, super-efficient light bulbs may instead lead to people simply using more light. (4) Michael Fark, who heads a Canadian nonprofit called Lighting Up The World, cites an example. “In Costa Rica, folks usually light their one-or two room clay brick houses by candles or kerosene lamps. This light, dim as it may be, is so precious that families spend up to 30 percent of their cash flow on candles or kerosene for a few hours of light per day.

Give the Costa Rican farm families a more efficient way to light their homes, and they will choose to consume more light, not less energy. Multiply their predicament by some 2 billion people in poverty around the world, and you enter the counterintuitive world of ‘the Jevons Paradox,’ which essentially says that energy needs will continue to grow even in the face of rapid growth in efficiency”, reports John Fleck. (5) The societal response to more efficient light production has been a preference to enjoy more light, rather than saving money and energy by keeping the amount of light produced to a constant. (6)

John Fleck sums it up well, “Tsao’s analysis suggests at least the possibility especially in places like Costa Rica, that the rebound effect could be bigger than the energy saved. Taken more broadly, the Jevons Paradox means energy efficiency could give the world’s poorest a leg up on the economic ladder, leading to more affluence and therefore more energy consumption, not less.” (5)


1. Peter W. Huber and Mark P. Mills, The Bottomless Well, (New York, Basic Books, 2005), 109
2. Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist, (New York, HarperCollins, 2010), 295
3. Robert Bryce, Gusher of Lies, (New York, PublicAffairs, 2008), 136
4. J. Y. Tsao et al., “Solid-state lighting: an energy economics perspective,” J. Phys. D: Appl. Phys., 43, 354001, 2010
5. John Fleck, “Energy Savings? No More Light”, Albuquerque Journal, September 21, 2010
6. “LEDs Promise Brighter Future, Not Necessarily Greener,” Science Daily, August 245, 2010





  1. Well, of course, when something useful is (or is perceived to be) cheap or “free,” then more of it will be consumed (until some other constraint limits the consumption). Two everyday examples are computer memory and cellphone minutes. As computer memory has become cheaper, its consumption has gone through the roof. Ditto energy. Ditto healthcare and drugs.

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