Energy efficiency

Background - 16 March, 2006
Energy efficiency is a very broad term referring to the many different ways we can get the same amount of work (light, heat, motion, etc.) done with less energy. It covers efficient cars, energy saving lights, improved industrial practices, better building insulation and a host of other technologies. Since saving energy and saving money often amount to the same thing, energy efficiency is highly profitable.

Energy efficiency is a very broad term referring to the many different ways we can get the same amount of work (light, heat, motion, etc.) done with less energy. It covers efficient cars, energy saving lights, improved industrial practices, better building insulation and a host of other technologies. Since saving energy and saving money often amount to the same thing, energy efficiency is highly profitable.

Better with less

Energy efficiency often has multiple positive effects. For example, an efficient clothes washing machine or dishwasher also uses less water. Efficiency also usually provides a higher level of comfort. For example, a well insulated house will feel warmer in the winter, cooler in the summer and be healthier to live in. An efficient refrigerator will make less noise, have no frost inside, no condensation outside and will likely last longer. Efficient lighting will offer you more light where you need it. Efficiency is thus really: 'better with less'.

Building a toxic free, sustainable home for low-income families. The house is free of toxic materials like PVC, the wood is from sustainable forests and the construction is solar powered.

Efficiency has an enormous potential. There are very simple steps you can take, like putting additional insulation in your roof, using super-insulating glazing or buying a high efficiency washing machine when the old one wears out. All of these examples will save both money and energy. But the biggest savings will not be found in such incremental steps. The real gains come from rethinking the whole concept, e.g. "the whole house", "the whole car" or even "the whole transport system". When you do this, surprisingly often energy needs can be cut back by 4 to 10 times of what is needed today.

Take the example of a house. By properly insulating the whole outer shell (from roof to basement), which requires an additional investment, the demand for heat will be so low that you can install a smaller and cheaper heating system - offsetting the cost of the extra insulation. The result is a house that only needs one-third of the energy without being any more expensive to build. By insulating even further and installing a high-efficiency ventilation system, heating is reduced to one-tenth. It sounds amazing, but thousands of these super-efficient houses have been successfully built in Europe over the last 10 years. This is no dream for the future, but part of everyday life for those thousands of families.

Total primary energy use per capita in the United States in 2000 was almost identical to that in 1973. Over the same 27-year period economic output (GDP) per capita increased 74 1973.

American council for an Energy-Efficient Economy

As another example, imagine you're the manager of an office. Throughout the hot summer months, air conditioning pumps cold air on your staff's shoulders to keep them productive. As this is pretty expensive, you could ask a clever engineer to improve the efficiency of the cooling pumps. But why not instead take a step back and look at the whole system. If we first improve the building to keep the sun from heating the office like an oven, then install more energy efficient computers, copiers and lights (which save electricity and generate less heat), and then install passive cooling systems like ventilation at night - you may well find that the air conditioning system is not even necessary anymore. Then, of course, if the building had been properly planned and built, you wouldn't have bought the air conditioner in the first place.

Moving forward

If cutting energy use makes such great economic sense, why isn't everyone doing it? Well, to start with, many people do take advantage of energy efficiency. According to the American council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, "Total primary energy use per capita in the United States in 2000 was almost identical to that in 1973. Over the same 27-year period economic output (GDP) per capita increased 74 percent."

But this is only a start. To truly tap efficiency's massive potential, which is unfortunately less tangible then an oil field, you first need proper government policy. To that end, the single most important tool is setting standards of minimal efficiency for houses, offices, cars, electric appliances, etc. reflecting the least life cycle cost. Consumers have the right to expect that the products they buy meet certain minimum standards. There are, for example, already minimum safety standards. Yet, standards for energy efficiency are too often neglected by governments, or are far too weak. Governments should also seize additional policy opportunities to promote continued innovation and improvement in efficiency technologies.

For more examples of energy efficiency, see our Individual Action web page, which has 12 practical steps you can take to reduce your own electricity consumption 4-10 times.

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