Environmentalists often claim that people systematically under-invest in energy conservation, something they call a market failure. This is why Obama and the Left put in a much heralded provision in the stimulus package that used Federal money to subsidize home energy conservation (new windows and insulation and such).
A new study in the NBER looks at the results. This is the abstract:
Conventional wisdom suggests that energy efficiency (EE) policies are beneficial because they induce investments that pay for themselves and lead to emissions reductions. However, this belief is primarily based on projections from engineering models. This paper reports on the results of an experimental evaluation of the nation’s largest residential EE program conducted on a sample of more than 30,000 households. The findings suggest that the upfront investment costs are about twice the actual energy savings. Further, the model-projected savings are roughly 2.5 times the actual savings. While this might be attributed to the “rebound” effect – when demand for energy end uses increases as a result of greater efficiency – the paper fails to find evidence of significantly higher indoor temperatures at weatherized homes. Even when accounting for the broader societal benefits of energy efficiency investments, the costs still substantially outweigh the benefits; the average rate of return is approximately -9.5% annually.
The only failure here is the government diverting capital from productive uses into money-losing ventures like this one.