Do people have a right to be inefficient? If that sounds like a strange question, it’s one we’re likely to encounter more often as energy prices keep rising, carbon reduction requirements grow stricter and utilities work to make grids smarter.
In the US especially, where a certain proportion of people has always viewed any government regulations as an intrusion on personal rights, utilities from California to Maryland are letting smart-meter opponents opt out of the advanced technology … for a fee. Having to pay more to keep a “dumb” meter doesn’t always sit well with opt-out customers, but it does seem fair considering everyone else would otherwise have to foot the bill for the extra time and effort involved in reading meters the old-fashioned way.
In other words, if you have the money, go ahead … be inefficient but be ready to pay.
On the flip side, there are times when efficiency is — in the short term, anyway — the more expensive way to go. Not all of us can afford a Prius, for example, or an array of solar panels on the roof of our home. In cases like these, inefficiency isn’t always a choice … it’s just the more affordable option, even if it costs more in the long run.
Ultimately, unconstrained choice with incentives for making efficient choices might not be enough to get us to a smarter, lower-carbon energy future, notes UK science adviser David J.C. MacKay, the Cambridge professor who wrote the highly regarded book, “Sustainable energy – without the hot air”:
“Perhaps a better legislative tactic would be to enforce reasonable energy-efficiency, rather than continuing to allow unconstrained choice; for example, we could simply ban, from a certain date, the sale of any car whose energy consumption is more than 80 kWh per 100 km; and then, over time, reduce this ceiling to 60 kWh per 100 km, then 40 kWh per 100 km, and beyond. Alternatively, to give the consumer more choice, regulations could force car manufacturers to reduce the average energy consumption of all the cars they sell … People today choose their cars to make fashion statements. With strong efficiency legislation, there could still be a wide choice of fashions; they’d all just happen to be energy-efficient. You could choose any colour, as long as it was green.”