2018/01/31: To focus on energy efficiency is to make present ways of life non-negotiable. However, transforming present ways of life is key to mitigating climate change and decreasing our dependence on fossil fuels.
Treating energy efficiency as a fuel and measuring its success in terms of “avoided energy” is pretty weird. For one thing, it is about not using a fuel that does not exist.
Why is it that advances in energy efficiency do not result in a reduction of energy demand? Most critics focus on so-called “rebound effects”, which have been described since the nineteenth century. According to the rebound argument, improvements in energy efficiency often encourage greater use of the services which energy helps to provide. For example, the advance of solid state lighting (LED), which is six times more energy efficient than old-fashioned incandescent lighting, has not led to a decrease in energy demand for lighting. Instead, it resulted in six times more light.
For example, LED-screens are more energy efficient than LCD-screens, and could therefore reduce the energy use of televisions. However, they also led to the arrival of digital billboards, which are enormous power hogs in spite of their energy efficient components. Finally, money saved through improvements in energy efficiency can also be spent on other energy-intensive goods and services, which is a possibility usually referred to as an indirect rebound effect.
The problem with energy efficiency policies, then, is that they are very effective in reproducing and stabilising essentially unsustainable concepts of service.  Measuring the energy efficiency of cars and tumble driers, but not of bicycles and clotheslines, makes fast but energy-intensive ways of travel or clothes drying non-negotiable, and marginalises much more sustainable alternatives. According to Shove:
Programmes of energy efficiency are politically uncontroversial precisely because they take current interpretations of ‘service’ for granted… The unreflexive pursuit of efficiency is problematic not because it doesn’t work or because the benefits are absorbed elsewhere, as the rebound effect suggests, but because it does work – via the necessary concept of equivalence of services – to sustain, perhaps escalate, but never undermine… increasingly energy intensive ways of life.