Energy efficiency is back on the table in the face of rising costs and international conflicts

Lloyd Alter writes on the Treehugger website that energy efficiency is now seen as a critical solution to many of the world’s most urgent challenges. Now let’s see serious implementation to show it is true.


International Energy Agency Calls for Serious Energy Conservation

The International Energy Agency (IEA) was set up by former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1974 to ensure the security of oil supplies. It is hardly a hotbed of environmental activist treehugger types. Yet, as it has done more than once, recently, it is proving itself to be a leader. With an energy crisis happening because of Russia’s war on Ukraine, energy conservation is back on the table in a way it hasn’t been since it was founded.

The IEA just completed a conference on energy efficiency in Denmark, issuing a report that “underscores the vital role of energy efficiency and energy saving in meeting today’s crises by immediately addressing the crippling impacts of the spike in energy prices, strengthening energy security and tackling climate change.” For some reason, it is illustrated with a photo of Stefano Boeri’s Bosco Vertical, which is not efficient in either embodied or operating energy, but that is another story.

“Energy efficiency is a critical solution to so many of the world’s most urgent challenges – it can simultaneously make our energy supplies more affordable, more secure and more sustainable. But inexplicably, government and business leaders are failing to sufficiently act on this,” said Fatih Birol, IEA executive director, in a press release. “The oil shocks of the 1970s set in motion major advances in efficiency, and it is utterly essential that efficiency is at the heart of the response to today’s global energy crisis.”

They must be having a profound case of déjà vu at the IEA, given it was formed in response to a war and fossil fuel supply issues, and one of the major approaches to dealing with it was promoting energy efficiency in buildings and transportation.

But the efficiency campaign ran out of gas, so to speak, in the ’80s. As we have noted many times, energy efficiency has been a tough sell over the last couple of decades. Energy was cheap, and increases in efficiency basically resulted in bigger cars and trucks, bigger houses, and more sprawl. With climate change, the focus changed to carbon emissions. I have written that efficiency is important, but it’s time to get serious about efficiency, and I would quote Australian philosopher Samuel Alexander, who says “efficiency without sufficiency is lost.”

This has all changed with the Ukraine war; we are now having a Jimmy Carter moment and energy efficiency is back on the menu. The IEA is calling for significant energy conservation measures right now, noting that “doubling the current global rate of energy intensity improvement to 4% a year has the potential to avoid 95 exajoules a year of final energy consumption by the end of this decade.”

To put that in perspective, an exajoule is one quintillion (1018) joules. A gallon of gasoline has 120 million joules of energy in it. We are talking a lot of energy. The IEA notes the savings:

“These extra efficiency efforts would cut global spending on energy. For example, households alone could save as much as USD 650 billion a year on energy bills by the end of the decade compared with what they would have spent in a pathway based on today’s policy settings. The amount of natural gas that the world would avoid using as a result of this would be equal to four times what the European Union imported from Russia last year, while the reduced oil consumption would be almost 30 million barrels of oil per day, about triple Russia’s average production in 2021. Compared to today, this global push on efficiency would help create 10 million additional jobs in fields ranging from building retrofits to manufacturing and transport infrastructure.”

It’s all a bit confusing, as it appears from this chart that the energy consumption in exajoules is actually going up, but the yellow is avoided demand, and the green represents gains from efficiency, The greenish-blue represents behavior changes, that’s us just using less. It’s the baby blue that matters, and it is going down a bit, and it doesn’t seem to add up to 95 exajoules. Try the interactive version—perhaps it is easier to understand.

The IEA noted in its highlights:

“The cleanest, cheapest, most reliable source of energy is what countries can avoid using, while still providing full energy services for citizens. That is why the IEA refers to energy efficiency as the “first fuel”. Without early action on efficiency the energy transition to net zero emissions will be more expensive and much more difficult to achieve.”

This sounds similar to what the International Passive House Association (iPHA) has been saying with its campaign, “Efficiency: The First Renewable Energy,” which was introduced to remind people that efficiency still mattered. When presented in the spring of 2021, Giorgia Tzar of the iPHA told Treehugger they wanted “just want to make sure that efficiency is still at the table.” She need not have worried; energy efficiency is very much back on the table.

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