David Owen has a fascinating article (subscription required) in The New Yorker about energy efficiency and “rebound” effects. Quoting from the article, the basic idea is that:
“When we talk about increasing energy efficiency, what we’re really talking about is increasing the productivity of energy. And, if you increase the productivity of anything, you have the effect of reducing its implicit price, because you get more return for the same money — which means the demand goes up.”
To give a concrete example, more efficient cars means more miles driven by an ever increasing number of people. The cheaper cars get, and the cheaper it gets to drive them, more people can afford to buy them, and more people can afford to use them for more and more miles per day.
The article gives another example, related to energy efficiency in refrigeration that had repercussions on a grand scale. Refrigerators are a role model of energy efficiency. Modern refrigerators are vastly more energy efficient than earlier models. Pretty much every household in the U.S. owns a modern refrigerator. But many households, instead of unplugging and recycling older models, they “demote” them to the basement and use them as freezers for meat or beverages. More importantly, refrigeration is so cheap that nowadays the refrigerated produce section of even the most remote gas station unnecessarily keeps sodas and even water refrigerated continuously. Clearly, the tremendous increase in refrigeration efficiency led directly to an explosion of refrigerator usage and inevitable waste.
The obvious question is: does the rebound effect plague all new technologies? Can we use clean energy technologies, biomedical advancements, better materials, etc. for the betterment of our society, or are all our efforts futile?