The Conundrum: A Blend of Useful Insights and Faulty Analysis

Blog | February 07, 2012 - 2:49 pm
By Steven Nadel , Executive Director

Today a new book by David Owen was released entitled The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse. This book expands upon an earlier article Owen wrote in The New Yorker that ACEEE criticized. Owen makes some useful points and does attempt to address some of the criticisms of his earlier work, but his book still suffers from the major flaw of his article—a tendency to make conclusions based on anecdotes when a more careful look at the data would have shown that these claims are exaggerated.

To start with the good aspects of this book: he’s an excellent writer and the points he raises will get people thinking. He does correctly note the substantial and growing energy consumption plus the greenhouse gas emissions associated with new and expanding energy uses such as travel and air conditioning. He also correctly notes that dense cities have lower energy use and emissions per capita since they avoid dependence on cars and single-family homes. Buying a Prius and an ENERGY STAR® Home will not make up for the much larger energy use of typical suburban living.

Owen goes on to claim that “the drop in unit energy consumption and the rise in global energy consumption are not unrelated” and states that “the overall trend, historically and globally, has always been in the direction of more.” Yes, when a household or business invests in efficiency and saves money, the money they save will generally be respent, and some of that respending will result in increased energy use (for example, a household may go out to dinner with the money they save), but as Owen acknowledges, when a group of experts were invited to consider the topic in a special issue of the journal Energy Policy , “a majority … concluded that there was not a lot to worry about.” Lee Schipper, the editor of that issue, concluded that “rebounds are significant but do not threaten to rob society of most of the benefits of energy efficiency improvements.” Owen attempts to dismiss these conclusions with anecdotes from his life and selected other snapshots to conclude that “my energy use and environmental impact have risen, because I have used my efficiency gains to leverage increases in my consumption, not to shrink it, and to satisfy wants that, forty years ago, I didn’t know I had” and further claims this applies to society as a whole.

Owen goes astray in two ways. First, he claims that increased services are due to efficiency increases, when in fact a much broader array of changes is responsible, including changes in technology, income, and labor productivity. Energy efficiency is just one of an array of contributors. Air-conditioning is much more prevalent in American homes than when Owen grew up primarily due to rising incomes, plummeting prices for air conditioners, and the fact that most new homes are now built with air conditioners. The fact that air conditioner efficiency has also improved, reducing operating costs, is only a modest contributor. The many causes of increased energy use is also illustrated by an example Owen provides of American steelmaking where he states that energy use has increased 172% from 1980 to 2000 as a result of annual efficiency gains of 2.5% for capital, 3.3% for labor, 2.9% for energy, and 0.5% for materials. Energy efficiency constitutes only about one-third of the reason for these changes.

Second, Owen is very pessimistic that energy use can be reduced, absent steady price increases and major behavioral changes. While these tactics would help reduce energy use, energy efficiency can also contribute substantially. Owen gives one example of how water efficiency investments in New York City have led to permanent reductions in water use, but he then argues that this is an exception to the rule. He uses selective data to make his case, ignoring a variety of places and applications where energy use has declined. For example, a January 2012 DOE study takes an in-depth look at U.S. lighting energy use in 2010 and compares this use to a previous DOE study on 2001 lighting energy use, finding that electricity use declined by 65 billion kWh (an 8.5% decline), even while the number of bulbs in use increased by 18%. The state of Vermont has been using energy efficiency to reduce statewide electricity use by more than 2% per year for several years, more than displacing their typical 1.5% per year load growth attributable to rising population and Gross State Product. Contrary to Owen’s anecdotes, total energy used in the United States by residential refrigerators is declining, according to EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2011, despite rising population, larger refrigerators, and increased use of second refrigerators. And even with vehicles, in recent years, U.S. gasoline use has declined by about 5% (2011 relative to 2008) due to the impact of higher fuel economy, reduced vehicle miles traveled, and the effects of the recession, resulting in declining revenues from gasoline taxes and reduced funding for roads. Time will tell whether the impact of the recession or efficiency is primary.

When I used to teach university classes, as a final assignment I would give students a well-written but faultily reasoned piece of writing and ask them to write a paper critiquing it. If I teach such a course again, The Conundrum would be the perfect assignment. For those who like the challenge of spotting errors of commission and omission, this book can be fun. But if you want an objective and factual account, look elsewhere.