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The (Hidden) Energy Costs in Energy-Efficient Fridges

David Owen argues that more efficient fridges doesn't always equal lowered energy use.

In light of GOOD's Energy Issue, I decided to look into how one household technology transforms our relationship with food:

In 2008, when Steven Chu spoke at the National Clean Energy Summit about using more efficient technologies to cut energy use, he talked about one success—a household fixture, a big, humming kitchen appliance that, since it's invention in 1900, has made its way into 99.5 percent of American households (yes, even in Alaska): the refrigerator.

Chu said that despite the ever-increasing capacity of refrigerators (the red line), better, more efficient cooling systems and mandatory energy regulations in California, had caused a net drop in energy use (the blue line)—more energy saved, in fact, than was expected to be produced from all renewable energies.

This line of thinking presumably extends to cars, computers, and electronic devises. At the time, The New Yorker's Elizabeth Kolbert enthusiastically responded, saying his speech heralded a shift in policy, a clear message from the country's future energy chief.

But now, David Owen, author of Green Metropolis, has questioned the escalation of the cooling capacity across suburban America in lengthy piece in The New Yorker. Owen says more efficient technologies don't always cut energy consumption or carbon output. That's especially true when it comes to the refrigerator:

The steadily declining cost of refrigeration has made eating much more interesting. It has also made almost all elements of food production more cost-effective and energy-efficient: milk lasts longer if you don’t have to keep it in a pail in your well. But there are environmental downsides, beyond the obvious one that most of the electricity that powers the world’s refrigerators is generated by burning fossil fuels. (Non-subscribers can read the full-text, via Richard Wilson.)


Fridges make us expect food will last forever, but it doesn't. Jonathan Bloom, the author of American Wasteland, tells Owen that we throw away a quarter of all food—and, with that food waste, goes all the energy that's been used to grow it, transport it, and keep it cold. That alone is a thought-provoking suggestion, but Owen goes one step further and says (parenthically) that “the growth of American refrigerator volume has been roughly paralleled by the growth of American body-mass index.”

He doesn't go into detail and I'm not so sure a clear causal link can be drawn between excess refrigerated shelf space and expanding waistlines. After all, people once filled large root cellars full of food for storage, some early ice boxes were pretty large, and, as Harold McGee says, frozen food isn't equivocal with unhealthy food. Regardless, it's clear that we need to think about how to stop wasting food and energy, as well as refrigerator space.

Top drawing via C. Linde, 1895. Apparatus for Producing Low Temperatures, Liquefying Gases, and the Separation of the Constituents Gaseous Mixtures. US Patent 728173.

Bottom drawing via Bechtold, Reuben E. and Mellowes, Alfred W. Cooling Apparatus. US Patent 1276612.

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