Not a lot of people in the greentech and environmental worlds talk about Jevon’s paradox. It’s a proposition that says if technology makes the consumption of a resource significantly more efficient, then more of the resource, not less, will be used. It was proposed after the coal-fired steam engine led to more coal usage in England, even though less coal was being used per engine. Well, according to researcher Jeff Tsao of Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, who published a report in the Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics recently (and which was covered in this Economist article) the same thing could happen with next-generation solid state lighting.
Solid state lighting, which is lighting based on light emitting diodes (LEDs) — the LED wafer is a solid source compared to the filaments in incandescent bulbs or the gas in fluorescent bulbs — will one day take over as the dominant type of lighting technology. As described in this GigaOM Pro report, innovative startups are flocking to the space; investors are funding the lighting shift; and governments are banning the older bulb technology.
But Tsao’s report says the growth of solid state lighting, replacing incandescents and compact fluorescents, could increase the consumption of light by a factor of ten within two decades. According to a variety of assumptions the report makes, Tsao predicts that by 2030, if the price of electricity stayed the same, and solid state lights were three times more efficient than fluorescents, then the amount of lumens consumed by a person could rise by 10, and the amount of electricity used to deliver that light could double.
That’s not good news, but think of it this way: The current amount of lighting used in the world isn’t saturated, which means our desire and capacity for brighter lights, and particularly more lights outside at night, could theoretically expand dramatically. As the Economist explains: “In 1700 a typical Briton consumed 580 lumen-hours in the course of a year, from candles, wood and oil. Today, burning electric lights, he uses about 46 megalumen-hours—almost 100,000 times as much.”
The point is that when the technology jump is dramatic enough, even though it leads to efficiency, there’s an unknown amount of applications in solid state lighting that could emerge.
There are a few factors, however, that can negate Jevon’s paradox. One is that the technological innovation won’t be disruptive enough to increase the use of the resource. Another is that the resource is uniquely not price- and efficiency-sensitive, and the resource is for some reason saturated; for example, humans just don’t need more or brighter lights.
Finally, a strong policy can nip Jevon in the bud. Jevon only works for technology innovation, not policies. Strong energy-efficiency mandates and subsidies could support solid state lighting, but make sure that lighting-based electricity consumption doesn’t grow along side it. This is why I think people should start talking more about Jevon’s paradox and looking at what policies will be needed to avoid the situation detailed in this report.
For more research on solid state lighting check out GigaOM Pro (subscription required):