You (Don't) Actually Get What You See

LED lamps

Another blog in my informal series that what you see is not necessarily what you get (especially when it comes to greener goods). The Economist recently carried an article claiming that the new solid-state lamps now coming on the market will not bring the energy savings the technology promises. Titled, Not Such a Bright Idea, the gist is that these intrinsically brighter lamps will increase the demand for light as all major lighting innovations have done historically.

Solid-state lamps, which use souped-up versions of the light-emitting diodes that shine from the faces of digital clocks and flash irritatingly on the front panels of audio and video equipment, will indeed make lighting better. But precedent suggests that this will serve merely to increase the demand for light. The consequence may not be just more light for the same amount of energy, but an actual increase in energy consumption, rather than the decrease hoped for by those promoting new forms of lighting.

Don't throw away those incandescents or CFLs yet. The Economist article is based on a scientific study by a group from Sandia National Laboratories. They predict that demand for electricity created by the new lighting devices could increase by as much as a factor of 10 over the next 20 years.

This case is not the same as the paradoxical economic consequences of efficiency producing technology. Known as the Jevons (who first wrote about it) paradox or the rebound effect, the savings gained by efficiency improvements may be invested in more productive capacity, ultimately producing more, not less, demand for the commodities involved. Jevons wrote about the increase, not decrease, in fuel demand that would be created by the then new invention, the steam engine.

The lesson here is that the greenness of devices cannot be always determined by analyzing the artifact outside the context of actual practice. It's the system, stupid. For Jevons, the system was the macroeconomy. For the new lighting technology, it's the human behavioral system. And for sustainability, the significance is that we need to test, on a limited basis, major new technological or institutional innovations before throwing them into the "free" market in order to make sure that the public benefits claimed to justify their superiority over the status quo are real.

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Bob Wagner said:


I was at the ICC event in Ojai at which you spoke on May 21-23 of this year. I have a book I want to gift you that you might find of interest, "'Moby-Dick" and the Mythology of Oil" which I published in July. The Preface will explain its relevance to your work.
May I have a street address to which I could send it?

Bob Wagner