Can more efficiency increase costs? September 24, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
A recent New York Times article discusses reports that the introduction of Electronic Health Records (EHRs) in American hospitals may be increasing the cost of health care in that country. EHRs were introduced, in part, in order to cut down on health care costs by making record keeping and sharing more efficient and therefore cheaper. However, as the article notes, health care bills at hospitals that have adopted EHRs has increased, not decreased. What gives?
One possibility is that EHR systems encourage fraud. It is easy for doctors to click on check boxes that say they have performed tests or examinations that they have not actually performed. For example, one patient noted that he was billed for a complete medical examination that did not occur. He complained and the bill was changed. The patient, a health consultant, blamed the design of the software:
“No one would admit it,” Mr. Burleigh [the patient] said, “but the most logical explanation was he went to a menu and clicked standard exam,” and the software filled in an examination of all of his systems.
In fact, companies that produce EHR systems may be using this sort of “feature” as a selling point. Some vendors advertise that their software helps doctors to game the billing codes to maximize the amount they are able to charge for their services.
Certainly, some systems include features that lend themselves to the maximization of billing levels. They are able to automatically generate detailed reports about patient history, and allow for the copying of examination findings from one patient to another, a practice known as “cloning.” The point of these features seems to be that more detailed records can warrant more severe diagnoses, and therefore more costly services.
Of course, fraud or sharp practice were possible before EHRs. Perhaps, the security measures on EHRs may be more lax than on paper-driven systems. Some critics blame the lack of regulation on EHRs:
Dr. Simborg [former chair of a federal panel on the matter], for one, said he helped draft regulations in 2007 that would have prevented much of the abuse that now appears to be occurring. But because the government was eager to encourage doctors and hospitals to enter the electronic era, he said, those proposals have largely been ignored.
However, the article does not comment on the state of regulations on the earlier billing systems.
Besides fraud, it is possible that increased efficiency could lead to increases in cost. Jevons’ Paradox applies to situations in which gains in efficiency are eroded, or even offset, by increases in consumption. Increases in energy efficiency, Jevons observed, make energy cheaper, encouraging people to consume more of it. In the case of EHRs, gains in efficiency in administration may be “consumed” through a focus on more expensive procedures. That is, doctors may react to time and effort saved in dealing with paper records by scrutinizing patients more thoroughly, perhaps looking for signs of more severe and expensive issues to treat.
It may be that the two issues are related. We would like to think that doctors would expend any gains from increased efficiency productively. However, what counts as productive depends on the incentive structure present in the system. If it pays doctors more to spend their gains in time by fiddling the bills, then we must expect that to happen.
The design of EHRs does seem to be focussed on generating medical bills. As Marshall McLuhan might point out, if bill-generation is the focus of the system, it will soon become the focus of the users as well. So, to reap benefits for patients of time gained through efficiency, perhaps the design of EHRs could be less about the generation of medical bills and more about generation of positive medical outcomes.
Making fat work for you March 8, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV203 , comments closed
A recent study suggests that fat cells can be recruited into the “war on obesity” through new drugs. The body contains so-called “brown fat” cells whose function appears to be the burning of calories to help maintain body temperature. This is in contrast to “white fat” cells that store calories. The new work suggests that “white fat” cells may be converted into “brown fat” cells. In so doing, the body would change from a regime of calorie storage to one of calorie burning:
Now Kajimura and his UCSF colleagues have demonstrated how [the conversion process] works. In their research, they showed that PPAR-gamma interacts with the protein PRDM16, making it more stable and leading to its accumulation inside cells. This essentially throws a genetic switch and converts the white fat cells to brown — at least in mice.
So, it may be that overweight people could be put on a regime of PPAR-gamma, which would convert some of their overactive “white fat” cells into “brown fat” cells, causing them to store fewer calories and thus lose weight.
In addition, there is research linking the amount of “brown fat” in the body to obesity:
And in recent years, doctors also have discovered the amount of brown fat in the body is inversely proportional to the likelihood of obesity — the more brown fat people have, the less chance they are obese.
So, by administering a drug that changes the amount of “brown fat” in an obese person to resemble that of someone at a healthy weight, the obese person will assume a healthier condition.
Given the stubborn nature of the problem of obesity, the prospect of an effective treatment is welcome. Of course, this new work comes with some cautions. For example, the correlation between weight and “brown fat” level is not proof of a causal relationship. An obese person with the “brown fat” cell level of a healthy person plus a dose of PPAR-gamma is not necessarily going to assume the same condition as the healthy person. And what effects might the change in fat cell levels have on the rest of the subject’s body? Perhaps a heavy person with a lot of calorie-burning fat might overheat. Of course, these sorts of questions may be addressable through further research.
Another concern is how such drugs might affect calorie consumption patterns in the general population. I noted in an earlier post that calorie intake among Canadians has been increasing, from 2358 calories per person per day (1976) to 2788 calories (2002), on average. People like to eat. If people can take a pill to increase their calorie-burning efficiency, then could they respond by consuming even more calories? Perhaps, if the drug is cheaply and easily available, and has no adverse side-effects. If so, then the drug might paradoxically help individuals suffering from obesity but also spread the problem of overeating more widely in the population.
Well, we are not there yet, but it is something to consider as the research moves ahead.
Human prehistory and the paradox of specialization March 2, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
A recent Discover magazine has an article on How we won the hominid wars. The article features a discussion with anthropologist Rick Potts, who talks about why modern humans persisted whereas Neandertals, Denisovans, Flores “Hobbits”, and other human types died out. In brief, his answer is that our ancestors were generalists whereas theirs were specialists. Being generalists is a better strategy for survival when environmental conditions begin to fluctuate.
This story provides an illustration of a general issue concerning sustainability. Sustainability refers to the length of time that an activity can endure. It is often equated with efficiency, or “bang for the buck.” This identification makes sense: If a process can be made more efficient, that is, be made to consume resources at a lesser rate, then it can endure longer while consuming those resources. There are some problems with this identification, as in the case of Jevons’ Paradox, previously discussed in this blog.
A related issue concerns adaptability. By this, I mean the facility for changing how a process is undertaken. A car could be considered adaptable, for example, if it can utilize different fuels. The Ford Model T, produced from 1908 until 1927, could run on ethanol, gasoline or kerosene. This was convenient for drivers who could not depend on the availability of any one fuel in general. However, such a generalized motor will not burn any one of those fuels as efficiently as a more specialized motor. As gasoline became more economical and widespread, it was adopted as the fuel of choice and automotive motors specialized in consuming it. I would not put kerosene in the tank of a Ford Focus!
So, although specialization permits greater efficiency and therefore sustainability in one way, it can put that sustainability at risk in another. Specialization locks the design in to the resource in question. If there were some sudden and major disruption in the supply of gasoline, for example, our current automotive fleet could not sustain our current transportation demands.
A similar issue may be seen in the biological world. The giant panda, for example, is a specialist:
An animal that shows a strong preference for one particular prey species and does not change its diet when the abundance of that species decreases, can be referred to as a specialist. While an animal with weak preferences for a prey species and one that frequently switches prey types is known as generalist.
The Giant panda relies exclusively on the stems of bamboo plants.
Specializing in the stems of bamboo plants has worked well for pandas in the sense that it has provided them with an abundant food supply and has allowed them to avoid competition with other herbivores (bamboo stems are not the easiest things to digest). However, specialization leaves the giant panda at risk of extinction in the event of a sudden and major disruption to their food supply.
So, back to the hominid wars. Why did the Neandertals go extinct? In part, it may be that they were physiologically specialized to cold weather and could not adapt to weather fluctuations that cropped up. Why did the Flores “hobbits” go extinct? In part, it may be that their specialized body form confined them to their small island home and left them unable to cope with some large change, perhaps the arrival of modern humans.
The tale of modern human beings then, may illustrate another paradox of efficiency and sustainability: The paradox of specialization. Specialization may increase efficiency and therefore sustainability in one way but also produces a lack of adaptability that may threaten sustainability in another way.
Stop worrying and love your robot car February 10, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Tom Vanderbilt, author of Traffic: Why we drive the way we do, has posted a piece on Wired responding to critics of autonomous or robot cars. Vanderbilt does not name the critics whom he rebuts, so it is difficult to tell if he represents them correctly and fairly. However, the points he makes seem sensible enough on their own merits.
(Alex Goy/Wikimedia Commons)
Two points, however, may present difficulties that do not receive adequate attention in his brief commentary. Let’s start with autonomy and privacy.
Vanderbilt notes that some people may object to robot cars because they would allow Big Brother, aka the government, to have a larger say in the behavior of your car. The point is, I gather, that some drivers enjoy illegal practices such as speeding, or drinking, texting, or watching TV while driving, and so on. A robot car would be programmed to obey all local rules and regulations, and would also be programmed to rat out occupants who break them. Of course, it might be worth pointing out that drinking, watching TV etc., might not be considered an offense in a robot car.
In defense of Vanderbilt’s anonymous critics, robot cars will raise issues with driving and traffic that simply do not exist with human drivers. The problem of managing accidents is one that has already been considered in this blog. Another would be the potential for increasing complexity of traffic regulation. Consider speed limits. Presently, speed limits tend to be fairly generic, with major highways having a default limit of 110 km/h (here in Ontario), county highways 80 or 90 km/h, and city streets 50 km/h. One could imagine matching speed limits much more precisely to local conditions. A single stretch of road could have dozens of speed limits at different points, depending on how straight they are, how narrow, how far from housing or schools, and so on. And then there are weather conditions to think about. The possibilities for regulation of autonomous cars may be nearly boundless. The introduction of autonomous cars will raise many new issues for governments and citizens to consider. My point is not that we should ban robot cars. It is just that a robot car is more than just a tool; it cannot be added to the existing traffic system without affecting that system in return. A similar story will apply to considerations of privacy.
Another point that Vanderbilt raises is whether or not autonomous cars will increase or decrease the amount of driving that occurs. Vanderbilt is skeptical that Jevons’ Paradox will apply. This is the argument that, since robot cars will likely be more fuel efficient that regular cars, that people will consume their savings by making more trips and at longer distances. As he implies, there is only so much time in the day, and people have other things they would likely prefer to do than sit in a car. So, this factor should limit any effect from the Paradox. However, as Vanderbilt concedes, the situation is not so simple. With the car driving itself, the driver’s attention is freed up for other tasks, such as sending and reading emails:
The utility of the commute could theoretically improve as people once stuck driving the car can now fire off e-mails with abandon. Then again, this increased utility might lead to more people taking advantage of the utility, thus leading to more traffic and more time spent in gridlock. At which point you might long for that other, essentially “self-driving” vehicle: the train.
In other words, the autonomous car will probably increase the productivity of each car trip for its occupants. Thus, the effective cost of the trip will decrease. It will be as if, along the lines of Jevons’ argument, you had added more time to the length of the day. In that case, people might well be willing to consume that “extra” time, while their car drives them places. In that event, fuel consumption could actually rise as a result of the introduction of robot cars.
As Vanderbilt says, neither of these observations provides a compelling reason to ban or abandon autonomous cars. However, neither should we think of the introduction of such cars as being just like the introduction of a new model year in an existing type.
Parking and progress February 2, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
The New Scientist has an interesting item about a networked parking lot that makes parking more efficient. The basic idea is to have sensors in each space in a lot, which report their empty/full status to a central system. The information could then be presented to drivers through smartphone or in-car apps. As a result, the drivers could head right for an empty spot, instead of hunting around for one.
There are two reasons presented in favour of this scheme:
- Being able to find a spot right away would lessen frustration for drivers:
It’s a problem familiar to most of us: you circle for ages waiting to find a parking space and just when you’ve spotted one, someone else darts in first.
Most people do not enjoy parking lot driving (and I am one of them), so lessening its duration seems like win for sure.
- Lessening the time spent parking should lessen the pollution produced by cars idling while waiting for a space, or crawling slowly around the lot:
That means more emissions. According to a 2007 study by Donald Shoup at the University of California, Los Angeles, drivers in a 15-block district of LA notched up a staggering 1.5 billion kilometres a year looking for parking spaces. That’s the equivalent of 38 trips around the Earth, 178,000 litres of wasted gasoline and 662 tonnes of carbon dioxide.
That is a staggering statistic! It would be wonderful to eliminate the pollution generated by this useless activity.
The article does not consider any possible downsides, but there are some possibilities. First, as per Jevons’ Paradox, gains in efficiency can actually increase overall consumption. In this case, making parking more efficient may simply encourage more people to travel to parking lots more often. The result may be an increase in driving, and thus an increase in trips, travel time, and pollution. Traffic seems to be particularly vulnerable to such effects, so the problem cannot be easily dismissed.
Second, who is really benefiting from this efficiency? Drivers may benefit, if the effect of Jevons’ Paradox can somehow be avoided. However, the parties most likely to benefit are the establishments that use the parking lots. For example, the stores in a mall would likely do more business if people can be packed more efficiently into the parking lot. Right now, the possibility of a frustrating parking experience probably keeps some people away from the stores. If that frustration can be relieved, then more people will come to shop at the stores. That is a win for the store owners and their shareholders, not to mention the employees at the stores themselves.
The losers in this situation would be those who do not drive cars, either for lack of income or simply preference for transportation alternatives. If people with cars are more able to access stores through parking lots, then there is less incentive for cities to provide access to them through public transportation. Those citizens without cars will then have less opportunity to shop at the same establishments as their fellow citizens. That may or may not be a big problem, depending on what shopping or other service opportunities are at stake.
There are other possibilities for increased efficiency in access to resources that do not require high-tech gear or that invite more traffic. For example, the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte has a program called Popular Basket in which busses travel around the city carrying basic food staples, acting as a kind of traveling farmer’s market. When the bus parks in your neighbourhood, you can pick up what you require. Instead of each family making a car trip to the mall, the mall comes within walking distance of every family in the neighbourhood. The scheme could cut down significantly on car travel while allowing neighbours to meet on occasion.
Of course, the scheme comes with trade-offs of its own: The buses tend to carry only basic goods, and are not always available. Furthermore, they might be viewed as beneath the dignity of some potential customers in North American cities. My point is simply that making parking lots more efficient is not necessarily the solution to our traffic woes, and that there are innovative alternatives to be considered if we look beyond our preference for shopping malls and high-tech gear.
Smart traffic management July 20, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
New York City is installing a new traffic management system called “Midtown in Motion”. The idea, as Ariel Schwartz points out in this FastCompany blog post, is to give traffic engineers more options to ease traffic flow through Midtown Manhattan:
Data from the sensors, cameras, and readers is sent to a control center, where engineers pinpoint “congestion choke points” as they happen and adjust traffic signals accordingly.
This system is more sophisticated than the established one in which traffic signal timings are adjusted simply by time-of-day. The point, of course, is to ease traffic congestion by seeing that traffic flows more efficiently through the existing system of streets.
(Image courtesy of Michael Danser via Wikimedia Commons.)
Although this approach seems reasonable, there are grounds for doubting that it will work as planned. Readers of this blog are familiar with Jevons’ Paradox, the claim that increased efficiency sometimes results in not less resource consumption but more. Jevons argued that making consumption of a resource more efficient was just like making it more plentiful. When a resource becomes more plentiful, it gets cheaper, with the result that more people consume it, and more of it, leading to an overall rise in consumption.
In this case, if the Midtown in Motion system succeeds in making traffic flow more efficient, this could be tantamount to increasing the capacity of the road system. It could be almost the same as if the City had built more roads. An increase in the supply of roadspace, Jevons might point out, could simply increase the amount of traffic. More people would take trips, and take more of them.
Curiously, this problem was pointed by Ariel in a recent posting regarding a traffic study conducted at the University of Toronto:
The disheartening study used data from hundreds of metro areas in the U.S. to reach the conclusion that there is a “fundamental law of highway congestion,” which essentially says that people drive more when there are more roads to drive on–no matter how much traffic there is. As a result, increased building of “interstate highways and major urban roads is unlikely to relieve congestion of these roads.”
This study surely lends weight to the concern that more efficient traffic management is not a solution to the problem of congestion.
In that case, what is the solution? According to this same study, the only solution shown so far to be effective is congestion pricing, that is, imposing a fee on drivers who use congested road networks. Increasing the cost of entering traffic is akin to decreasing the supply, almost as if some roadways were closed down. People respond by not driving or leaving their cars at home when they do travel. So, it is perhaps a sad irony that New York City has chosen the Midtown in Motion system over the alternative:
Midtown in Motion will certainly be a more popular traffic solution than congestion pricing, a scheme proposed by Mayor Bloomberg that would charge drivers a fee for entering Midtown during peak traffic times.
Well, politicians often have to do what is popular, but you cannot help the sinking feeling that New York is throwing its money away.
Lawyering 2.0 June 24, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
The Web provides a bazaar of ways in which users can do for themselves things that would otherwise require expert help. Another example of this sort of opportunity is Cybersettle.com. This service allows people to negotiate a settlement to a lawsuit involving damage claims. Suppose, for example, that a City snowplow strikes your car and damages it. To seek redress, you hire a lawyer and sue the City in court, right? Problem is, lawsuits can be messy, complicated, and inconvenient, at least for the non-lawyers. This new service would allow you and the city to negotiate a settlement online, by making offers and counteroffers until you alight on a mutually satisfactory figure.
(Image courtesy of Tene via Wikimedia Commons.)
As TechnologyReview points out, this process could make a costly and unpleasant experience much less so:
Law, with its enormous volume of interlocking arcana, seems prime territory for automation. Cybersettle says that it has already facilitated the settlement of over a quarter of a million claims for some of the largest insurance companies, corporations and municipalities in the country. It’s a trend that could see even less employment for lawyers used to helping their clients go through the motions on routine matters like settlements.
This service does sound intriguing. It might be very handy to make short work of the negotiation process. Also, if the service also provides a database of previous settlements to search and consider, then it could make the settlement process considerably more fair than it already is. Knowing how similar suits have been settled would tend to bring equitable consistency to the process.
As always, there are concerns, e.g., privacy. Who would have access to your settlement data? The police? The tax-man? Your employer? Also, such a system might require integration into the existing court system. For example, accessing court records is currently done by pencil and paper forms in Ontario. So, use of a Web-based settlement system might require the government to fund changes to existing legal practice.
Then there are potential unintended consequences to consider. For example, Jevons’ Paradox suggests that making a process more efficient can actually lead to an increase in its expenditure. In this case, making legal settlement seeking more efficient might induce people to file more lawsuits. After all, they are now so easy to finish! People already complain about the number of lawsuits launched; presumably they would complain more about an increase in that number. Along the same lines, could this service make people less tolerant of each other? Today, you might forgive the city, or your neighbour, for putting a minor ding in your car. However, if suing them becomes easy enough, then why not?
Conservation through competition May 26, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
A study by the Environmental Defense Fund, summarized in this FastCompany article, concludes that consumers who receive detailed power usage reports from their utilities tend to cut down on their electricity consumption. Particularly important also is information comparing the individual customer’s power usage to that of other, similar customers in the same region:
Homes that received the reports slashed energy consumption between 0.9% and 2.9% annually. That sounds like a small amount, but the EDF estimates that cutting residential electricity usage across the U.S by 1.8% would save over 26,000 GWh of electricity, cut greenhouse gas emissions by 8.9 million metric tons of CO2 each year (equivalent to the emissions of three 500 MW coal-fired plants), and help households save a combined total of over $3 billion dollars per year on electricity. That’s a lot of energy savings just for redesigning a bill.
This tendency of people to reduce power consumption when presented with richer information and under pressure of social competition has been noted before. It is interesting to consider how it might work.
(Image courtesy of Paulo Barcellos Jr. via Wikimedia Commons.)
First of all, the introduction of conservation measures does not necessarily result in conservation. Jevons’ Paradox suggests that the presence of more efficient gear can actually increase consumption. For example, the introduction of efficient, LED light bulbs could conceivably increase electricity usage as people find more places they want to light up. Why is it, then, that people who consume power more efficiently after receiving fancy power reports do not simply find more ways to consume power efficiently, thus increasing their overall consumption? Well, this possibility is not ruled out by the EDF report since it accounts only for power consumption in the home, and not at work or elsewhere.
Psychological research suggests that this possibility must be taken seriously. It has been shown that people who make an effort to conserve energy in one way can increase their consumption in another through a process of “moral capital”. That is, people increase their sense of moral righteousness through acts of conservation, thus acquiring “moral capital” that they then spend on themselves later through acts of extravagance. It is as though our moral compass includes a kind of sweet spot of righteous conduct that we aim towards, whether that means improving our conduct or debasing it. See Edward Tenner’s recent blog post on the perverse effects of conflict-of-interest disclosure.
Despite this reservation, I would not conclude that the EDF study has it wrong. Another psychological theory, cognitive dissonance, suggests that people really can be nudged into better behaviour. Researchers in an experiment asked pool patrons to take a survey about their attitudes towards water conservation and their past efforts to conserve water. The real point of the survey was to remind people that conservation is something they approve of, and that they probably have not done as much as they could to conserve water. In short, they were hypocrites. Researchers observed that these subjects took shorter showers than others afterwards, in an apparent effort to conserve water. Receiving a periodic energy consumption report could act like the survey in this experiment, reminding people of their approval of conservation as a good behaviour. That might dampen their tendency to return to their more extravagant former behaviour pattern.
Finally, as Marshall McLuhan would point out, the report itself conveys a powerful message to the utility’s clients: It changes power consumption from an individual (or family) concern into a communal one in which people compete or collaborate in groups. In other words, it reminds customers that their consumption of power affects not only themselves but everyone else on the grid. In turning consumption from an individual to a social concern, it opens people up more to social expectations. If people think that others are aware of their usage and would judge it harshly, then that is a powerful inducement for reduction also.
However, we will not really know what is going on until we have reliable data on the power consumption of individuals instead of light bulbs or homes.
Water use reduction April 20, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
In the last 30 years, the U.S. has more than doubled its GDP, and added 70 million new people, and reduced total water use.
We use less water to produce an economy of $13 trillion than we did to produce an economy of $6 trillion.
That’s dramatic progress. Most of it comes in efficiency from power generation and farming. Farmers, overall, use 15% less water than they did in 1980, but produce 70% more food. That’s an increase in farm-water-productivity of 100%.
There’s a simple, potent lesson in those numbers: dramatic progress can be made in using water more smartly without sacrificing modernization or closing the swimming pools in the summer.
The figures are indeed impressive, although perhaps not as much as the author suggests.
(Image courtesy of Wamito via Wikimedia Commons.)
As Scott noted in an earlier post, a similar situation holds true in the Waterloo region. That is, water usage has declined as economic growth has climbed. Some of this trend may be due to more efficient water use, such as low-flush toilets, better irrigation, and so on. However, much of it may be due to the fact that water-intensive industries have moved out of the region and overseas, e.g., to China. Statistics from WorldWater.org suggest that Chinese freshwater consumption has gone from 460 km3 (cubic kilometers) per year in 1980 to 549.76 km3 per year in 2000. Undoubtedly it is gone up substantially since then.
It is hard to estimate how much of China’s water consumption can be accounted for through taking over American industrial production. However, I suppose it must be quite a bit.
Water consumed in one area on behalf of another is sometimes known as virtual water. Another source of US virtual water consumption comes with oil imports. In 2009, Canada exported 2,479 barrels of oil per day to the US. That amounts to roughly 144 million liters of oil. The oil extraction process requires a fair amount of water because the oil needs to be “washed” out of the tar sand:
Approximately 12 barrels of water are required to produce one barrel of oil by surface mined oil sands operations. About 70% is recycled leaving a net requirement of between 2 to 4.5 barrels of water per barrel of bitumen production.
So, about 1.7 billion liters of water were used to produce the oil that the US imported from Canada in 2009. As US oil imports from Canada (and elsewhere) continue to rise, the US consumption of virtual water will likely increase substantially.
We also have to reckon with US imports of physical water. In 2009, the US imported over 442 billion liters of bottled water. How should this water count? It is a small amount set against industrial water consumption, but it is very expensive and raises external costs of its own:
In summary, the manufacture and transport of that one kilogram bottle of Fiji water consumed 26.88 kilograms of water (7.1 gallons) .849 Kilograms of fossil fuel (one litre or .26 gal) and emitted 562 grams of Greenhouse Gases (1.2 pounds).
As I noted in connection with home energy use, it is not a simple matter to get the accounting right when considering the relationship between efficiency of resource usage and overall consumption. In particular, a lot may depend on which consumption you choose to leave out.
Jevons’ Paradox and home energy use April 8, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
A recent article from FastCompany points to another example of Jevons’ Paradox. In this case, a survey by the US Energy Information Administration suggests that the amount of energy consumed in American homes has remained constant from 1978 through 2005. This non-drop in consumption should be puzzling because of the substantial increase in appliance efficiency over that same time period. That is, furnaces, air conditioners, and major appliances have become much more efficient, which should result in a drop in energy usage.
The article blames the non-decrease on Jevons’ Paradox: the claim that increases in efficiency do not necessarily lead to drops in consumption because consumers simply find other ways to consume the resource. In this case, the slack in energy consumption due to home heating, cooling, etc., seems to have been taken up by an increase in electronic gadgets. That is, Americans have increased their usage of energy at home by increasing the number of TVs, computers, and so on, that they use there.
(Image courtesy of Milford via Wikimedia Commons.)
As Scott has pointed out earlier, the appearance of Jevons’ Paradox depends upon how consumption is accounted for. Water consumption in Waterloo region may decrease, for example, due to exporting water-using industries and not due to more efficient home water use. In the case of home energy use, an accounting issue may arise from the increase in average house size, as I have pointed out earlier:
The average new house floor area has gone from from 983 ft2 in 1950 to 2266 ft2 in 2000, while the amount of floor space per person has gone from 286 ft2 per capita in 1950 to 847 ft2 per capita in 2000.
This increase in average house size is due to a number of factors, perhaps including the increased efficiency in house construction, and the American penchant for home ownership and real estate speculation. So, you could argue that Jevons’ Paradox does not really apply here. After all, if home energy usage has remained constant while floor space per person has increased, then energy consumption per square foot has decreased vigorously over the years. So, Jevons’ Paradox appears if we measure energy consumption per household but disappears if we measure energy consumption per square foot. Why should we be more concerned with one measurement than the other?
From a purely mathematical standpoint, I do not see much difference. However, Jevons’ Paradox is not a mathematical claim but one about human nature. People do not necessarily respond to increased efficiency with lower consumption. So, we have to tune our accounting of the Paradox to units that matter to people. You could make a case that a per household measurement of energy usage makes more sense to people than a per area measurement because people are more affected by households than area. I would think that an even better move would be to look at home energy usage on a per capita basis. Per capita usage of energy has been steadily increasing, along with usage of many other things. At the same time, the number of persons living in each household has declined, going from 3.14 in 1970 to 2.62 in 1992, for example.
What to make of this? First, it seems that the application of Jevons’ Paradox is legitimate in this case: Home energy use per person is increasing, in spite of gains in efficiency of individual energy-using designs. Second, housing is becoming increasingly inefficient: Each square foot of housing is doing less and less work in being a home for individual persons. A traffic engineer faced with road system in which each kilometer is conveying fewer and fewer cars would probably suggest that we should close some lanes. If anything, the appearance of Jevons’ Paradox in home energy use suggests that we should make houses smaller or get more people into them. How can we do that?