Buddy, my furnace repairman, tells me it’s time to buy a new furnace. And I’d better act quickly if I still want to order the old mid-efficiency model. In the New Year, I have to buy a high-efficiency one, which, of course, costs twice as much.
Welcome to the brave new world of energy scarcity—it’s not only smaller, but also more costly. As energy prices continue to climb, you can expect to pay more, not less, for all the new energy-efficient cars and devices for your home.
But don’t count on actually saving any energy.
Efficiency may be the holy grail of the economist, but it’s a total head fake for the conservationist. And while one is being used to promote the other, the two concepts are as different as day and night.
The fact that the high-efficiency furnace generates more heat for a given amount of fuel burnt doesn’t necessarily mean I will end up with any fuel savings. As the cost of my heating falls, might it just allow me to set my thermostat higher? If so, my energy savings go right up the chimney.
That’s just where all the energy savings in the auto industry have gone over the last four decades—up the tailpipe, actually. Despite all the efficiency gains mandated by rising CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) standards, your average North American car consumes just as much fuel today as it did back in the early 1970s. Sure, the engine is 30 per cent more efficient, but now it’s hauling around an SUV that’s driven about a third more per year than a vehicle was back then.
And it’s no different in your home. Don’t be fooled by the fact that even today’s kettle has to meet some government-mandated energy-efficiency standard. Your house consumes a lot more energy than your parents’ did.
Even the most energy-efficient central air conditioning system sucks a lot more power than a bedside fan. Those two or three flat-screen TVs you have? Each one consumes about four times as much power as the old black-and-white in your parents’ living room. And while today’s furnace is certainly more energy-efficient than your parents’ was, the size of the average house it’s heating has doubled from the meager 1,500 square feet it was back then.
From our homes to our vehicles, what do we do when greater energy efficiency lowers the cost of consuming energy? We consume more of it, not less. And the rebound created in demand as the cost falls nullifies all the conservation gains that greater efficiency made possible. Paradoxically, efficiency gains encourage us to consume more of the very resource we are trying to conserve.
With that in mind, I told Buddy I was ordering the old mid-efficiency model. Not only does it cost half as much as the high-efficiency furnace, but I’ll probably end up burning less gas as well.