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Uncertainty, loss aversion, and markets for energy efficiency

By David L. Greene


Increasing energy efficiency is critical to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions from fossil-fuel combustion, reducing oil dependence, and achieving a sustainable global energy system. The tendency of markets to neglect apparently cost-effective energy efficiency options has been called the "efficiency gap" or "energy paradox." The market for energy efficiency in new, energy-using durable goods, however, appears to have a bias that leads to undervaluation of future energy savings relative to their expected value. This paper argues that the bias is chiefly produced by the combination of substantial uncertainty about the net value of future fuel savings and the loss aversion of typical consumers. This framework relies on the theory of context-dependent preferences. The uncertainty-loss aversion bias against energy efficiency is quantifiable, making it potentially correctible by policy measures. The welfare economics of such policies remains unresolved. Data on the costs of increased fuel economy of new passenger cars, taken from a National Research Council study, illustrate how an apparently cost-effective increase in energy efficiency would be uninteresting to loss-averse consumers.Energy efficiency Fuel economy Loss aversion

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