A car that gets better mileage or a more tightly sealed home may tempt you to drive farther or crank the air conditioning up higher, but fears of these efficiency rebounds are largely overblown, at least in the United States, according to experts.

Though some people may take an efficiency gain as a license to use more energy, the increases are often trivial compared with the savings. Usage could increase as much as 30 percent for improved heating and air conditioning, but for appliances like refrigerators, the rebound is close to zero, according to Larry Dale of the energy efficiency standards group at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

"I would say on average, [the rebound effect] is closer to 10 [percent]," Dale said yesterday at the Energy Efficiency Global Forum in Washington, D.C. This means increasing efficiency is worthwhile and a net positive in terms of cutting overall energy use.

He noted that technologies that are more efficient could create some indirect energy rebounds. "Running the big national energy models and looking at the impact of the standards ... we are also noticing there is an impact on energy prices," Dale said. As consumers use more energy in response to appliances that are cheaper to run, energy prices could rise due to increased demand, he explained.

The idea of an efficiency rebound effect, also known as the Jevons paradox after the English economist who described it, has lurked behind officials looking into setting tougher energy consumption cuts for cars, homes, businesses and appliances.

Increasing efficiency is often the cheapest and easiest way to cut electricity and water consumption, but some lawmakers expressed concerns that stricter rules may backfire and undermine progress toward curbing emissions.

'Jevons paradox' takes a hit
Joseph Romm, a fellow at the Center for American Progress who runs the Climate Progress blog, said this fear is a red herring. "The rebound effect is small, but in the policy realm where I operate, it gets raised a lot, mostly by people who want to convince the world our energy problems can't be solved and that energy efficiency is ultimately not going to achieve anything," he said.

"Because it's a political argument, it's relatively impervious to the facts," he added.

Nonetheless, efficiency goals should still address cost concerns. Robin Roy, director of the building energy and clean energy strategy group at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the policy objective for new standards should be "to achieve the maximum energy savings that are technologically feasible and economically justified."

On the other end of the equation, officials need to do a better job tracking how legislation actually plays out in the real world. "The single biggest weakness in our energy efficiency policies in this country is our failure to properly analyze, incorporate and account [for] the benefits," said Steve Crowell, chairman and CEO of the Conservation Services Group.

In addition, efficiency is not enough to mitigate climate change on its own, especially as nations like China and India come online and global energy use continues to rise. "In the U.S., the rebound may be 20 percent, maybe 30. In developing countries, it might be 80 or 70," Dale said. "As people get richer, they use more electricity."

As a result, international agreements to cut total energy consumption will have to include provisions like carbon pricing as well as efficiency measures, Dale said.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500