The Paradox of Efficiency

by Rusty Pritchard

[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly reflections, called Deep Down Things, published on Wednesdays.]

Close-up of a compact=

CFLs: They get cheaper, we use them more. (cc image courtesy fangleman via flickr)

The advent of more efficient electric lights ought to be hailed as a great step forward for energy conservation, since lighting consumes a hefty 6.5 percent of the world’s energy supply.

But human behavior regularly confounds expectations, and in this case we find a seeming paradox. Researchers expect energy efficiency increases to raise the amount of energy consumed in lighting. It’s basic economics, in a way.

Light is a good thing (didn’t God himself say so in Genesis 1?). And the law of demand in economics suggests that if the price of a good thing goes down, people will always want more of it. (The concept of “enough,” although biblical, has never really caught on in economics.)

This was the case when gas lighting replaced candles and whale fat—cheaper light led to higher demand, including street lights (!). The conversion to more-energy-efficient electric lights led to another increase. We now consume 100,000 times as much light as Western Europeans did in 1700.

Light is so much in demand that the increase in consumption wiped out the gains from efficiency, so more energy rather than less was used. The same is expected to occur in the future, as solid-state lighting replaces today’s compact fluorescent lamps, as reported in the Economist news magazine. Those lights will be better for the environment if and only if we are satisfied with today’s level of lighting. But we won’t be, if history is a judge. Efficiency is expected to increase by a factor of three, while consumption of light is expected to increase by a factor of 10. We’ll need twice as much energy to make that light.

We’ll have brighter indoor lighting, better-lit retail spaces. And, security-obsessed as we are, we’ll light up outdoor spaces that are currently dark. That would be a good thing in my inner-city neighborhood, but it has side effects.

If you haven’t seen the Milky Way lately, get your views in now. Light pollution (combined with air pollution) already obscures

Street light at twilight.

Will cheaper efficient lighting mean more of these? (cc image courtesy loop_oh via flickr)

all but the brightest stars in urban areas.

More efficient cars don’t lead to less gasoline consumption, either, in case you were wondering. Cheaper car travel makes private transportation more attractive relative to public transportation.

None of this means we shouldn’t pursue the gains of energy efficiency, it just means we can’t expect relative prices to make us virtuous people. We still have to confront the culture of “more” in the context of well-lit 24/7 consumerism.

Rusty Pritchard is co-founder and president of Flourish.

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Let There be Light: the paradox of efficiency | rooftop
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