On Energy Efficiency, Don’t Fear The Rebound

Opower boasted last week that clients had used its services to save 2 terawatt-hours of electricity. In a blog post, the company outlined what that means in real world terms, but maybe you’re a skeptic. Maybe you believe in the rebound effect.

You know, the rebound effect: Also known as Jevons’ paradox, this is the idea that efficiency gains are offset by more consumption. Your car goes farther on a gallon of gas, you drive more miles. Like that.

But a new study by energy experts says not to worry, the rebound effect, which is actually four different effects all wound together in a complex way, is overstated.

“Rebound effects are small and are therefore no excuse for inaction,” the researchers write in a Nature paper. “People may drive fuel-efficient cars more and they may buy other goods, but on balance more-efficient cars will save energy.”

The researchers, who included Gernot Wagner of the Environmental Defense Fund – and author of a favorite book of ours, But Will the Planet Noticesaid the rebound effect had become a “distraction,” clouding the reals gains than can be made in trimming greenhouse gas emissions by improving efficiency.

On the Obama administration’s aggressive automobile fuel economy standards, for instance, the researchers estimated the “direct rebound effect for efficiency alone should be … around 5-10%,” nowhere near to wiping out the benefits. Even in the most dramatic rebound cases, the authors argue, the rebound effect won’t be more than around 60 percent.

“Energy-efficiency measures should be on the policy menu to curb energy use and to address global warming,” the authors write. “Stricter energy-efficiency legislation should be considered across all sectors, alongside options that are not subject to rebound effects, such as carbon pricing.”

The intellectual case against energy efficiency (or at least, for emphasizing the downside of such efforts) has been made by the Breakthrough Institute, a think tank that calls itself progressive but clearly likes to pursue a quirky, somewhat iconoclastic path. Conservatives opposed to government meddling in industry (as they view imposition of efficiency standards) have then cited the rebound effect as a reason to resist efficiency through policy.

But even the Breakthrough Institute has written that “that the proposed increase in fuel economy standards are likely to present a clear win-win-win: reducing oil use and enhancing energy security (although by less than anticipated if rebounds are ignored); reducing greenhouse gas emissions (although again, less than anticipated if rebounds are ignored); and driving improved individual welfare and savings and greater economic productivity and growth.”

Sports columnist, newspaper desk guy, website managing editor, wine-industry PR specialist, freelance writer—Pete Danko’s career in media has covered a lot of terrain. The constant along the way has been a fierce dedication to knowing the story and getting it right. Danko's work has appeared in Wired, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.