Increasing power plants’ efficiency is often assumed to be an effective means of reducing carbon emissions. However, an empirical analysis of plants’ efficiency and emissions led by a University of Colorado, Boulder sociology professor casts some doubt on that conventional wisdom.
The study, by Don Grant, professor of sociology, examined almost every fossil fuel plant in the world in operation between 2004 and 2009. It sought to establish whether efficiency improvements decrease emissions or motivate the consumption of more electricity—causing emissions to actually rise—an unwanted consequence called the "rebound effect."
Grant's research observed the rebound effect in most “core” countries—such as the United States, China and India—but it was smaller than what proponents of that theory typically suggest and certainly not on the same scale as the emission reductions created by increased plant efficiency. However, by examining data on individual power plants, rather lumping them together by country, the researchers were able to refine these findings and specify which types of plants showed tendencies toward this rebounding effect.
“Large and older plants were found to be most susceptible to these effects, as were plants located in the core or more developed regions of the world economy,” Grant says. “Surprisingly, rebound effects also tended to occur in countries with more environmental non-governmental organizations, suggesting these groups may be co-opted by local fossil fuel industries.”
According to Grant, the study should help public policymakers forge more targeted legislation to reduce carbon emissions from particular types of power plants.
“In the past, officials would target an entire economy, and then they began to target individual sectors [such as electricity],” Grant says. “What we are suggesting is perhaps officials need to take that one step further and target plants with particular profiles.”