An op-ed in today’s New York Times from Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus tries to throw cold water on this week’s exciting announcement of the Nobel Prize for Physics being awarded for blue LEDs, which made white LEDs possible and increasingly ubiquitous. This op-ed comes on the heels of a similar NYT-published contrarian piece on trees and climate change. Today’s, sadly, is similarly misguided. Here are five reasons why their critique is way off the mark.
Shellenberger and Nordhaus caution that “it would be a mistake to assume that LEDs will significantly reduce overall energy consumption,” because of the rebound effect, the tendency of people to use more of something once it’s gotten cheaper, which can undo benefits of energy efficiency.
There are lots of reasons why their reasoning doesn’t hold
1. Lighting is huge. As the Nobel committee noted, lighting accounts for a quarter of global electricity use. It accounts for 10-15 percent of a standard U.S. household’s electricity use.
And, as we look to integrate more and more solar in particular (which even Shellenberger and Nordhaus should like), the big evening load becomes a greater concern once solar has so deftly tackled our afternoon electricity peaks. Lighting is a huge piece of that evening demand, so addressing lighting is a seriously important tool in the toolbox of ways to smooth things out.
2. If rebound is anywhere under 100%, we’re making progress. The rebound effect that the authors note is real, well studied, and generally modest—well under 100%. One excellent overview resource on this issue, The Rebound Effect: Large or Small? by ACEEE’s Steven Nadel, summarized a review of a range of studies this way:
“We find that there are both direct and indirect rebound effects, but these tend to be modest. Direct rebound effects are generally 10% or less. Indirect rebound effects are less well understood but the best available estimate is somewhere around 11%. These two types of rebound can be combined to estimate total rebound at about 20%. We examined claims of “backfire” (100% rebound) and they do not stand up to scrutiny.”
Lighting is huge enough that even a 50% rebound—cutting lighting-based electricity demand half as much as the technology could have—would be a really big deal.
3. Timing matters (and now is much better than later). As with all climate solutions, the sooner we can get technologies like LEDs deployed, the more time we buy ourselves to do the next innovation, and the next. As a colleague pointed out to me this morning, if we had come up with electric light bulbs earlier, our world would have a much more robust whale population. But with climate change, we’re not talking about whales; we’re talking about us.
4. It’s not an either-or. Shellenberger and Nordhaus say that LEDs aren’t going to get us where we need to on climate change, and that what we need is cleaner energy supply. We obviously agree fully with the need to clean up our electricity supply, and work hard to help people understand the wealth of technologies, like wind and solar, already doing that.
But we want—and need—both. Every kilowatt-hour we don’t use is one fewer kilowatt-hour we have to produce, which means that the renewable energy we build goes that much farther. When we looked at serious low-carbon pathways a few years back, we found that energy efficiency could turn a 25% renewable energy penetration into a 40% one—with no added renewables.
5. Recipes with one ingredient are awfully boring. Kevin Leahy (who works for Duke Energy) had a good tweet response today to the NYT piece:
@Revkin @TheBTI No single tech likely to save the day. Like a complex recipe-each ingredient matters.
LEDs are powerful, but are just one of the tools, and they and the whole gamut of energy efficiency technologies aren’t the whole picture—even paired with renewables. Climate policies—a price on carbon, for example—are key additional ingredients. So is public education about the opportunities to cut electricity use, cut carbon, and save money (think Cooler Smarter).
LEDs help make it easier to the get the necessary reductions, cut carbon, and cut the costs of meeting the carbon reductions we so dearly need.
Make it so
What this all adds up to is simple: LEDs can give us set amounts of light using a whole lot less electricity than incandescent bulbs. That’s a tremendous gift, made possible by stunning innovation, which the Nobel folks are right to recognize.
What we do with that gift is up to us. Combining smart efficiency technologies with smart technologies on the electricity generation side, smart policies, and public education are a great way to make sure LEDs live up to their potential.
And UCS is all over that. My colleagues, our supporters, and I are not going to make the mistake of assuming that LEDs on their own will help us cut energy and clean up our energy act. We’re going to make it happen.
Support from UCS members make work like this possible. Will you join us? Help UCS advance independent science for a healthy environment and a safer world.