Public Policies, Private Choices: Consumer Desire and the Practice of Energy Efficiency

May 27, 2008 - 12:00pm
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This talk explores refrigerator energy efficiency as a technical concept, a political framework, and a marketing strategy. Refrigerator energy consumption has been the subject of regulatory attention in the US for some thirty years. The results are celebrated as a successful model for how to combine regulatory objectives and consumer preferences in pursuit of environmental outcomes, with no losers. However, the per capita refrigerator energy consumption today remains (much) higher in the US than in virtually all other countries. In this talk I examine priorities shaping the design of refrigerator energy efficiency policies and programs, translations of this work into product labels and Consumer Reports tests, as well as some highlights from the Cold War history of US refrigerator inefficiency. A logic common to the policies, programs, and labels facilitates aligning desirable, upscale product attributes with environmental responsibility (=energy efficiency), which is an inversion of the long standing association between low energy use and smaller, basic models. This inversion legitimizes and accelerates industry's upselling strategy, which undermines the first-order objective to reduce refrigerator energy consumption. To meet climate change goals I suggest the need to expand the policy focus beyond the present attention to technical parameters, as well as the need to bring what I call the social history of these regulations to bear on this set of policies.

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