Why efficiency isn’t so efficient
September 10, 2006, 10:44 pm by bottleman. Filed under: energy, monster houses.

While normally I don’t flog anybody’s work, it’s time to make an exception. Deep breath. Here goes:

Gee, what a super article in the new E magazine (see this reprint on Alternet) about monster houses! Could that guy possibly have been reading this blog, or even, I dare say, writing for it?

The article points out a strange fact: despite the fact that American houses have more energy efficient devices — light bulbs, windows, and so on — than ever, they’re also using more energy than ever. From space America positively radiates!

photo of usa at night from darksky.org

(If I squint, I think I can see my house.)

On the face of it, it doesn’t make sense. Doesn’t higher efficiency mean using less energy? You’d think so, but then you realize that “efficiency” is defined in relative terms — by the square foot for houses, or by the cubic foot for refrigerators.

For example, according the Energy Guide labels, the immense (26 cubic feet) Frigidaire FRS6R3E is a “wasteful” refrigerator, using 727 kilowatt-hours per year. An “efficient” Energy-Star-approved alternative of the same size, the Frigidaire PLHS67EES, uses only a little less, at 618 kilowatt hours per year. Meanwhile a third refrigerator — this Danby model — gets no respect from Energy Star even though it uses only 376 kilowatt hours per year.

Sure, the Danby is one third the size at 9.1 cubic feet, but how many people need a 26 cubic foot refrigerator? I mean, aside from Mother Hubbard?

Efficiency, as currently used, doesn’t take into account whether the total size of the house or the fridge or the whatever is really necessary or appropriate. That’s why somebody can build a 4600-square-foot house, put two full-size water heaters in it, and still have the whole place “Energy Star” certified, as the E piece exposes.

And that’s why American houses are using more energy than ever. They’re getting bigger, and all that space is getting filled up with more and more “efficient” appliances — multiple TV’s, freezers, etc. It all adds up!

The focus shouldn’t be on efficiency, but on actual consumption. That’s the point of view that some analysts from the Lawrence Berkeley lab have started to push recently, for example in a report recently submitted to Governor Schwarzenegger (now there’s two words I never thought I’d put together…), titled simply IS EFFICIENCY ENOUGH?

It’s pretty clear the answer is no.

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it seems likely that energy efficiency itself is a driver of larger homes and increased consumption. there is even an economic principle, jevon’s law (i think), that that address this effect. basically, given a readily available supply of an energy resourse, increasing the efficiency of machines that use that resource acts as the equivalent of a price reduction. so not only can current users can afford to consume more, but new consumers are also brought into the fold, increasing consumption overall.

have you read the berkeley study? i remember a couple years ago reading how some power companies were experimenting with a business model of providing warmth and “coolth” as services, rather than selling the energy itself. could be promising.

off topic, i’ve been casually looking for a new fridge, since i’m sure our’s is an energy hog (the ice maker never turns off, for one thing, but i need to get a wattage analyzer to see how much i would actually save), so i googled Sanyo 1030S , and what do you know… bottleworld is the 6th result!

Comment by peter on 19.09.2006 um 12:43 am

i wasn’t aware of jevon’s law as a formal principle, but i’m not surprised. energy-consumption tracking geeks at US govt. agencies are increasingly mentioning how these big new houses are getting filled up with appliances… multiple tv’s, fridges, etc. if it cost much to operate them, people would be discouraged. this is a problem because all those things operate on electricity, which (because of inefficiencies in generation, as discussed here — http://bottleworld.net/?p=29 ) makes disproportionately large efffects on total energy use.

i haven’t read the whole berkeley study i quote, but i have read all of a more recent seminar paper by those LBL / DOE scientists on the same topics. they didn’t talk about “warmth” or “coolth” though.

you know i was looking up fridges for you and i realized the sanyo 1030S IS an energy star fridge, in its alternate model number, sr-1030. so i will need to change my post to list a different efficient-but-not-energy-star fridge. fyi energy star fridges are listed here: http://www.energystar.gov/index.cfm?c=refrig.pr_refrigerators

Comment by bottleman on 19.09.2006 um 5:15 pm

hey, i found the theory, it’s called Jevon’s Paradox, even though it’s not really
a paradox.

regarding electrical losses (in the other bottleworld article you linked to), even though advances are being made in superconductor (ie:
zero resistance) wires, the solution to this problem that interests me the most is the idea of the “microgrid”. even with
superconductors transporting electricity, a huge amount of heat is still generated and wasted, and energy is spent cooling it down before
it is expelled!

microgrid’s would cogenerate most electricity and heat within the home using solar (perhaps even wind and geothermal in some locations?),
and micro combined heat and power generators (micro-chp) –basically a hot water heater that also generates electricity. micro-chp
is to homes what the hybrid gas-electric engine is to cars; though the current models are run on carbon based fuels, the design is
flexible, and could be powered by other sources in the future, perhaps eventually hydrogen.

neighborhood level controllers would then distribute surplus energy between locations within the community network (net generators would
get paid for their surplus). surplus energy from within the local network could be sold back to the top-level provider, or with a smart
enough grids i imagine surplus energy could find the nearest microgrid that needed more capacity. in a way, it could do for energy what
peer-to-peer has done for the internet.

of course, centralized power generation would still play a role, but having been through enron’s fabricated energy crisis in
california, i came to the conclusion that decentralization of energy production and distribution is as important politically as it is
environmentaly. even if it means paying a bit more, it is worth it not to be subject to the whims of the enron’s of this world and the
regulators that enable them.

got a bit off topic, guess i should get back to work.

stupid work.

ps – thanks for the fridge link.

Comment by peter on 20.09.2006 um 12:13 pm