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Controversy over reaction to Nobel for LED developers

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A blunt response to the award of this year’s Nobel Prize for Physics to three developers of LED lighting has brought angry response.

This is how two men who run a controversial think tank greeted the award in the New York Times.it would be a mistake to assume that LEDs will significantly reduce overall energy consumption,”

They are talking about the “rebound effect” which is an important consideration when evaluating energy saving technologies. If I buy a new fuel efficient car and use all or part of the savings to drive greater distances that is a very direct rebound.

The argument of Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute is LED lighting will enable more people around the world to light their homes and workspaces so the use of electricity for lighting will increase.

True, but if incandescent or compact fluorescent bulbs were used the the increase in electricity demand would be much greater.

Shellenberger and Nordhaus have written an extensive paper on Lighting, Electricity, Steel: Energy Efficiency Backfire in Emerging Economies. It has a lot of detailed data and they argue:

From candles to kerosene and electricity, as lighting technologies have become more efficient and more affordable, societies have been very creative in finding new ways to use them, leading to more overall energy consumption.

And,

In the UK per capita lighting consumption from electricity jumped three orders of magnitude in 100 years, from 3,750 lumen-hours in 1900 to over 18 million lumen-hours in 2000.

They do say that in some countries lighting demand is reaching saturation. I suggest that in the UK we are starting to see reductions by measures such as switching off street lighting after midnight.

In summarising a publication, Capturing the Multiple Benefits of Energy Efficiency. the International Energy Agency, says:

Considering multiple benefits also has important implications for unravelling one of the persistent challenges in energy efficiency – the rebound effect – revealing that it is not always negative. In fact, the rebound effect often signals a positive outcome in terms of achieving broader social and economic goals.

Inevitably, the NY Times piece has drawn responses from commentators and bloggers (Climate Progress: Confuses the facts is one). Earlier this year the Breakthrough Foundation came under attack from a writer on Harvard University’s Centre for Ethics blog:

While sometimes functioning as shadow universities, think tanks have been exposed as quasi lobbying organizations, with little funding transparency. Recent research has also pointed out that think tanks suffer from a lack of intellectual rigor. A case in point is the Breakthrough Institute run by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, which describes itself as a “progressive think tank.”

Discussions on climate change and energy efficiency are bound to be complex. We do not need people like Shellenberger and Nordhaus making simplistic statements which hamper informed debate.

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  1. Angus cuts electricity costs for street lighting by a third | New Life says

    […] report provides a footnote to yesterday’s post about the “rebound effect” on savings from energy efficient […]