The rebound effect – Why buying a Prius is a waste of time

I always knew it was a fallacy that Prius cars were good for the environment:

But Owen notes improved efficiency doesn’t always translate to reduced energy use, thanks to something called the “rebound effect.” It’s pretty simple: as we become more efficient at using energy, we can save money — which then allows us to use more of that energy than we did before. Picture it this way: you trade in your gas-guzzling SUV for a new efficient hybrid, end up paying less per mile for gasoline, and use some of the savings to drive more than you did with the SUV. The efficiency has rebounded.

It’s not clear how big the rebound effect really is. Efficiency advocates say that the effect, when it exists, is limited. Amory Lovins, the head of the Rocky Mountain Institute and an efficiency evangelist, has written that “no matter how efficient your house or washing machine becomes, you won’t heat your house to sauna temperatures, or rewash clean clothes.” There’s a limit to how much more I would drive after buying a hybrid even as my gas bill shrinks.

But Owen argues that the rebound effect is much broader than a one-to-one relationship. I might drive a little bit more using the savings from my more efficient car, but I might also take the rest of those savings and spend it on something else — perhaps a vacation flight, or a new television. And nearly everything we buy and consume today requires energy, from appliances to holidays. Perhaps that’s the reason American electricity production grew 66% between 1984 and 2005 even as the economy overall became much more efficient. And things are likely to be even worse in a rapidly growing nation like China, where a lot of people are acquiring consumer goods and other luxuries for the first time. “Energy efficiency by itself is not a sufficient green strategy,” says Owen.


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  • In addition, when you do a life cycle analysis on the prius hybrid vs petrol model the hybrid actually works out worse across almost all the indicators as the parts produce more pollution to manufacture. 

    • HeinB

      This doesn’t sound right, the only part of a hybrid that differs from a regular car is the battery pack, yes, manufacturing a extra part will lead to extra pollution. Got any reasonably scientific studies to back up this claim ? 

      • tas

        I understand that the battery uses plenty of rare earth metals. That’s the big issue.

      • Can’t access them while I’m at work but there are plenty. I studied environmental management and did this as a case study for an assignment. In addition to the battery you also need to take into account the different maintenance that the hybrid model requires and any replacement batteries that would be required (from memory the hybrid batteries also don’t last as long- but i may be wrong would have to dig it out. There is a (very basic) tool online that you can use to compare different products using life cycle analysis google EIOLCA. LCA is best used only as an indicator though as it takes a very long time to go through all the levels and different contributing factors often using complicated matrices. 

      • A-random-reader

        The batteries in hybrid cars are made from lithium. There’s no shortage of lithium on the earth (the oceans contain several hundred billions tons of dissolved lithium).

      • phronesis

        An electric motor is handy in an electric car, and the magnets in that motor are made of rare earth metals.

      • HeinB

        My bad, just looked it up on wikipedia: 
        Each battery pack uses 10–15 kg (22–33 lb) of lanthanum, and each Prius electric motor contains 1 kg (2 lb) of neodymium; production of the car is described as “the biggest user of rare earths of any object in the world.

      • Doug_S

        @ Random-reader. Toyota Hybrid batteries are NiMH and contain no lithium. They are a similar beast to Lithium-ion but primarily contain Nikel either way there are no rare earth materials in the batteries

    • Anonymous

      My former boss bought a Lexus Hybrid, a large and substantive vehicle to replace his E-Class merc……..with less than half the load space.

      One has to ask, what is the cost of lugging all those batteries around versus simply having a smaller vehicle (Which may actually have the same load space)

    • Grandstream
  • Bob

    Drive more; Who would want to spend more time in a Prius…..

    • greenmuppet

      While riding in a Prius taxi I asked the cabbie what he thought of his Prius. He started going on about it literally forever. Just a few things I remember he said: heavy vehicle, understeer,  gutless and noisy engine, unpredictable acceleration and braking, hard suspension and tyres that get the passengers to absorb every pimple on the road, and yes, 
      ridiculous luggage space, fuel economy is there but only if you drive like a grandma… 

      • Callum

         Apparently the Camry hybrid has made some taxi drivers VERY happy compared to the standard Falcons and Commodores, has a lot less fuel efficiency based compromises than the Prius.

  • Auto_immune

    It’s my understanding that new generation diesel cars are now more fuel efficient than hybrids, and don’t carry the metal pollutant cost attached to battery production. 

    NZ really needs to change the way RUC is implemented here. 

    • HeinB

      Agree 100%, if you are going to knock hybrids, then do so with a efficient euro diesel. Too bad they are basically eliminated by our ridiculous RUC system.

    • insider

      It is, but not the way you probably think it should. Current recommendation to govt is that small diesels are not paying their way and RUCs will go up quite a lot for your Peugeots and Hiluxes

      • Auto_immune

        Wow.  Thanks for the info.  Personally think it’ll be really unfortunate if that recommendation goes through; it’s basically signing the small diesel death warrant in NZ.

  • Paulus

    My new European 1.4 twin turbo will knock the spots off a Prius, more particularly over a 100km or more drive. I am told that the  Prius is great around town at 25kms per hour.
    My previous 2.00 turbo Diesel from same manufacturer was very good, but we no longer did the kms required to maximise the benefit.

    • BD

      Any small engined diesel will beat a Prius. Prius was designed for consistently heavy and slow moving traffic in large cities in countries such as Japan, the US and Europe where the average speed in the city is 20kmph. Aucklanders only suffer an extra 30min onto their average morning and evening Mon-Fri commute. Most Prius you see being driven around NZ are using the petrol engine rather than the electric engine because we dont have the congestion. Other problem is deteroriating hybrid batteries, more toxic than a leaking nuclear energy facility. No worries though, they last for 800,000kms so it will a generation 4-5 times away problem to deal with.

  • kevin

    Try buying a new Prius battery.. cost you as much as a second hand car.

  • TM

    I’m not a fan of the Prius, but this article is just talking about Human behaviour.  It’s the same thing as people who install heat pumps and then find they use more electricity than with electric bar heaters because they have it on all the time.

  • HSV325

    I love my HSV GTS 325 Gen 4 Chev Power 17L per 100 k round town, 12 on a trip. Feels great I am cancelling out the fuel savings of a couple of Prius’s

  • Anonymous

    Buying a Prius isn’t necessarily a waste of time!  The vast majority of rebound effect studies don’t take the higher capital cost of the Prius into account.  If you do, the rebound effect because much smaller. 

    Even with rebound effects, you do get energy reductions, just not at a 1-1 ratio with efficiency improvement.  There is limited evidence of rebound effects greater than 100% (or that efficiency increases overall energy consumption).

    The existence of rebound effects means it is harder to reduce energy consumption than previously thought, and we need to take this into account and accelerate our efforts to shift to a low-carbon energy system.