Saturday, September 5, 2009


When we were children and our mothers, grandmothers or assorted aunts wanted us to stop acting like children, their command was “Behave!” When you heard that and got the look that went along with it, you generally shaped up. Or else. These days, the problem with behaviour is that no one pays attention to it any more (no, this isn’t a discussion about parenting; it’s about energy efficiency and conservation in the Caribbean).

The energy problem in a nutshell is that we need to find ways to supply more green energy – and to reduce our demand for it at the same time. So energy conservation and energy efficiency are vital aspects of the solution.

The thing is: our policymakers (and here I’m also referring to the consultants who write the policies and plans that the politicians approve) have quite often misunderstood the demand side of the problem – and have traditionally framed it as being comprised of two separate things, one having to do with people and the other with technology.

For example, according to a national energy policy document published this year by a large CARICOM country, energy conservation is defined as “practices and actions that reduce the amount of energy that is used”, whereas energy efficiency is “changing technology so that less energy is used to accomplish the same task.”

In other words:

Conservation = Behaviour
Energy Efficiency = Technology

So, according to the above formulation, if I walk to the bar instead of driving there, I would be reducing my energy use by conservation. But if, on the other hand, I bought a new, more fuel-efficient vehicle that gets far better gas mileage than my current vehicle, I could still drive to the bar – but I would also use less energy, so I achieve the same result, thanks to technology!

New technology is so much sexier than better behaviour.

Except that: a British economist named William Stanley Jevons explained, some 144 years ago, why this would not actually be the case. “It is wholly a confusion of ideas”, Jevons wrote then, “to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.” In his book The Coal Question, published in 1865, Jevons pointed out how James Watt’s steam engine, by improving on the previous design, provided much better fuel efficiency – thereby causing England’s consumption of coal to soar. His observation came to be known as the Jevons Paradox.

The Jevons Paradox is explained by what is called the rebound effect; an economic theory which says that if the cost of a resource is reduced due to increased efficiency, people will consume more of the resource (or the services dependent on the resource) than previously, thereby offsetting (partially or entirely) the effect of the efficiency improvement.

For example: a colleague recently told me the story of his neighbour, who never used his outdoor lights at night – until he got energy efficient compact fluorescent lamps. Since then, he has been leaving the lights on outside, because he knows he now has “energy-saving bulbs” inside. Well, guess what the overall effect on his electricity bill is likely to be? (This is an example of a direct rebound effect).

Or, take television. I want a new TV. I have a 32” Sony cathode-ray tube model, and I’m interested in a sleek flat-panel set. Flat-panel plasma or LCD TVs are more energy efficient than their bulky CRT counterparts; they use less electricity per inch of screen. But what are the chances that I will replace my 32” CRT with a 32” flat-panel? More than likely I (and many other buyers of new TVs) will upgrade screen size as well, which then causes the better energy efficiency per screen inch of the new TV to be offset by the larger number of screen inches. And, you know what? Flat panel TVs look really sexy when they’re on, so maybe I’ll inadvertently leave my new TV on more often than I did the old one. This all adds up to using more electricity, not less.

The important point here is that these are not isolated examples. A growing body of research indicates that the rebound effect is a universal behavioural response, one that gives rise to energy consumption outcomes that are quite different to the predicted ones.

So how is this relevant to Caribbean energy policy?

To date, I have seen no energy policy published in the Caribbean that makes any reference to the rebound effect or to behavioural factors in relation to energy efficiency outcomes. This omission causes us to get our sums wrong.

We can calculate, based on the technical efficiency differences, the energy-saving effect of new technology (importing fuel-efficient vehicles; replacing incandescent bulbs with CFLs and so on), but without taking behavioural factors into account, our estimate of the amount of energy to be saved will be incorrect. We need new equations, which are:

Conservation = Behaviour
Energy Efficiency = Technology + Behaviour

Who’s sexy now?

I’m writing some more on this soon, but here’s some reading on the rebound effect.