The Efficiency Paradox
Driving a Prius is wrong and other inconvenient truths…
I recently read a book, “The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse” by David Owens. The Conundrum is full of dilemmas. Air Conditioners are more efficient and cheap; hence, more homes are now air-conditioned. The more affordable light bulbs get, the more they are left on. Airplanes are more energy-efficient and faster than at any point in history, and therefore cheaper to fly longer distances.
Owen’s book brings deflating news: most supposedly sustainable products and eco-living strategies are, he writes, “irrelevant or make the real
problem worse” (see my earlier blog about biofuels). Owen’s logic is backed up by an economic principle known as the “rebound effect”.
Advances in energy efficiency lower the cost of a given activity, which causes people to engage in that activity more, canceling out not only savings
but also environmental benefits.
Over the past quarter century of building homes in Northern Virginia I have found what Owens is saying to be absolutely correct. The homes we are building in Loudoun and
Fauquier Counties have more efficient HVAC systems, better insulation, and Energy Star appliances but result in higher energy bills as they are double,
and in some cases triple, the size of the homes we were building 25-years ago. I encourage my clients to build custom homes with only rooms they will use
on daily basis. Leave the McMansions to the production builders.