Since I have started covering our global energy transition, I have been thinking a lot about how we could create interest in saving energy. In a neocapitalist world that promotes to always consume MORE of everything, how can we seriously and meaningfully consume LESS energy ?
Even if renewables will become the first global electricity source in the next three years, our energy transition won’t be successfull until we drastically slash per capita energy consumption in G20 countries. Time is running out on the climate emergency and energy efficiency, conservation and sobriety are key to building fast a carbon neutral future.
The evidence is overwhelming
The International Energy Agency has made energy efficiency its top priority and is calling it “the single largest measure to avoid energy demand in the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario”. The IEA tracks energy intensity improvement in regular reports, from an average of 1.7% in the 2010s to a required 4% in Net Zero scenarios. This shows how far we are from actually addressing the topic.
On a similar note, the prestigious Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) and its founder, Amory Lovins, say that energy conservation is the “largest, cheapest, safest, cleanest way to address” our many crises. I still have fond memories of their book Reinventing Fire and last year’s article in The Guardian is eye-opening as to the tremendous potential of “integrative, or whole-system, design” when it comes to saving energy everywhere : buildings, industry, transportation…
In France, the Negawatt Institute considers sobriety (go and read this great article by Lloyd Atler on Treehugger to understand this typically French concept) as one of the three key pillars to our energy transition, alongside with energy conservation and renewables. The Institute believes that as a response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, slashing our energy consumption by ten percent in two years is feasible. Recent events have proved them right.
Despite all this, little is being said and even less being done in addressing meaningfully the vast inefficiencies and wasted energy of our homes, cars and so on. How can we get our elected politicians and the mainstream media – and thus, the general public – to actually care and act upon energy savings ? How can we get governments to enact laws that are actually slashing energy demand ?
Saving energy by efficiency, conservation and sobriety is not as visible as a wind farm or solar panels on a roof or on a carport. Yet these solutions can offer much better returns than renewables, some are even free (dialing down your thermostat at home is free and offers staggering savings).
Additionally, saving energy is oftentimes not as straightforward and simple as just adding renewable energy capacity. That’s why wasted energy is so prevalent. There are questions of agency – who is responsible – and the technological problems can be mind boggingly hard to understand, let alone solve.
Then there is the entire topic of primary vs final energy. One should remember that when you are consuming a kWh of electricity from coal, fossil gas or nuclear, the equivalent of two kWhs of thermal energy have been generated in pure loss. Other examples abound in various sectors… This is why the dual trend of electrification and renewable energy matters so much.
And the solutions are clear
1. TACKLING WASTED ENERGY.
The French energy transition agency, the ADEME, believes that around 7 to 13 percent of our energy consumption in buildings could be cut without lossing any level of comfort. That’s basically energy wasted. Many people in the profession – me included – believes that this amount is underevaluated. Think about how many lights are left on when no one is around – including street lights at night – think about how many rooms, offices and schools are heated or cooled at their comfort setting 24/7, etc…
I was wondering back in 2021 at how much energy is being wasted in such ways around the world ? How many coal and gas fired plants are running and polluting 24/7 to provide electricity and heat that are just uselessly consumed ? Even at a modest 10 percent, the potential quick reductions in costs, air pollution – and thus deaths – should make this an absolute global emergency. This is why we need energy managers and advisors everywhere.
2. MAKING EFFICIENCY A PRIORITY
On top of slashing energy waste, there are so many low hanging fruits when it comes to efficiency and conservation. Very simple steps can be taken by all of us to further decrease our energy bills, and thus our addiction to fossil fuels and their providers. Governments should make such steps prominent in the public life and easy to make. Given the returns on investments, subsidies would very quickly pay for themselves.
Grabbing the low hanging fruits globally would free up some of the money to help either transform completely our buildings, industries and so on or allow to at the very least go further into technologies that lower energy needs even further. I am thinking here about ground source heat pumps, district heating, nature-based materials and so on. These are the technologies – and the jobs – of the future.
I think by now you will have gotten my point : we could see a massive reduction in energy demand very fast with the right incentives and systems thinking. This would transform our civilization and would make our journey towards carbon neutrality much faster and easier.
But in a world where fossil fuels companies and petrostates have so much power, reducing energy consumption is a direct threat to the established world order, even if solutions abound and would benefit almost everyone on the planet.
That’s why fossil fuels lobbying and subsidies are skyrocketing to counter and slow down efforts. And national governments make money by taxing fossil fuels… This is a wicked problem and I don’t have solutions on this, but if you do, please let me know !
Image credits : Jason Leung on Unsplash.