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Energy efficiency: an underrated resource of our age

Recent sustainable energy news has been, at best, downcast, focusing on the United States’ Government’s decision to back out of the Paris climate deal. 

But running in contrast to this, here’s the good news. It appears that energy efficiency has been hugely underestimated by major international agencies for a long time. 

Huge numbers make profound case

Analysis by American economist and author Skip Laitner shows just how much of a major resource it is, and how wide of the mark mainstream predictions have been. We’re not talking a few Joules of energy here and there - we’re talking quadrillions.

"It turns out that energy efficiency is a much bigger productivity resource than is generally understood. And it is the 'ace in the hole' -- as a meaningful climate solution, and also as a catalyst for a more robust and sustainable economy...As we publish those 'supply-side' projections, we tend to lock out the very large demand-side opportunititues." Skip Laitner, Principal and Independent Consultant at Economic and Human Dimensions Research Associates

Static models make bad predictions?

Key insight: Energy Efficiency Resource is Larger than Generally Believed our UnderstoodCritics of the projections made by bodies like the International Energy Agency (IEA) say their ‘business as usual’ models are quickly rendered redundant by swift technology and market changes. This view is backed up by a 2015 study which suggested that Greenpeace were the closest organisation to currently predicting the global solar boom. 

Image source: DOE 1980 Policy Analysis, AEO 2005, AEO 2017, and Laitner estimates 2017 via Green Tech Media

Using less vs. generating more

Wind turbineThe Union of Concerned Scientists is another prominent American voice highlighting the central importance of using less energy. It has shown that energy efficiency is the country’s third largest electricity resource – saving more than hydro, renewables and nuclear generated.

Julie McNamara from the organisation said: “When it comes to clean energy, we spend a lot of our time talking about the tremendous benefits and abilities of resources like wind and solar. But do you know the very cleanest energy resource we have? That would be the one that helps us never call upon an electron at all.”

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It is pointed out that efficiency is a prime contributor to the ‘de-linking’ of energy use and growth in GDP over the years. And while these figures are from America, this is a trend that has been replicated in the UK and elsewhere.

But energy use is still rising overall, and both Laitner and McNamara call for smarter policies and better investment to continue the momentum on efficiency measures. 

McNamara, in particular, points to government cuts in energy efficiency research and proposed loosening of standards. Again, such points are valid when considering the UK energy efficiency picture – especially in light of the country leaving the legislative framework of the EU. 

These numbers present a body of evidence for energy efficiency as a major global resource, to be considered just as seriously as generating infrastructure. It tends to render recent high-level political manoeuvres all the more perplexing. 

Share your thoughts with us in the comments below, or tweet us directly @EnergySvgTrust.

Gary Hartley is Energy Saving Trust's expert blogger. He has extensive experience researching and writing on a number of topics, with particular expertise in sustainable energy, policy, literature and sport. As well as providing regular blog content, Gary has also been published in numerous magazines and journals.

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