February 15, 2011
E&E News: "Energy Emergence Report" points to energy efficiency’s double-edged sword
Today's E&E News covered the release of the Breakthrough Institute's most recent report, "Energy Emergence: Rebound and Backfire as Emergent Phenomena", pointing to the report's conclusion that "increasing the efficiency of our power systems and gadgets will not necessarily yield great reductions in energy use and could lead to using even more juice". The article is excerpted below (subscription required).
In a new review of energy efficiency literature, researchers at the Oakland, Calif.-based think tank found that a "rebound effect" means that implementing low-cost efficiency improvements can increase overall energy consumption and can even lead to a higher net energy use in what they describe as a "backfire effect."
"The implications are serious for climate and energy policy," wrote Michael Shellenberger, the institute's president, in a description of the study. "Energy efficiency measures that pay for themselves are good for the economy but are not guaranteed to reduce energy consumption or emissions, and may in fact increase them."
The study's conclusion is not that policymakers should steer clear of efficiency improvements, which the institute's researchers say are good for economic growth, but that such improvements should not be counted on to reduce energy use or associated emissions.
The study points to several mechanisms that contribute to the rebound effect. More efficient use of energy leads to higher production, with that increased economic output tied to higher energy use overall. Efficiency also leads to the substitution of energy inputs for others like labor and capital with a resulting increase in energy use.