Chasing the elusive energy efficiencyApr 18th, 2011 | By Oscar Widerberg | Tags: Breakthrough Institute, Climate change, Energy efficiency, energy policy, smart meters
Energy efficiency is the least expensive alternative to lower our energy consumption. It builds on the idea that we can invent our way out of an approaching energy crisis and that people can be compelled into taking the “right” decisions. While doing it we create jobs, stay competitive and create loads of other co-benefits.
In European policy making there is a range of tools and targets to support energy efficiency. The most visible is the 20% energy efficiency gains by 2020 target set in 2007. There is also an impressive body of legislation, for example directives and strategies on energy labelling, green public procurement and eco-design. Together, they form a policy framework which aims to encourage people to buy energy efficient products while punishing bad performing ones.
The problems with energy efficiency however are many. The Commission has already established that we’re far off our trajectory if we want to reach the 2020 target. And policies in place seem to lack sharp edges.
Smart meters for stupid people?
A telling tale of the problematique surrounding energy efficiency policy is the massive roll-out of smart-meters. A smart-meter is a gadget which allows a house owner to monitor the building’s energy consumption in real time. More information should lead to more awareness and encourage consumers to be more economical in their energy use. More conscious energy consumptions could potentially shave hundreds of Euros off energy bills. Interestingly enough, energy companies are eager to participate. The installation of smart-meters in European homes has been impressively decisive, penetrating over 50% of some markets. The UK is one of the forerunners and set a goal to have smart-meters in all homes by 2020.
The success of the meters however is very unclear. Industry tests show some improvements with mostly single digit percentages gained in savings. Also, consumers have complained about costs being passed on to their bills for installing the meters. One thing has become painfully clear: just installing the meter is not enough. You need extensive information campaigns for people to internalise the benefits of doing their laundry in the middle of the night. Technology alone is not enough to generate behavioural change.
Are we really saving energy?
The Breakthrough Institute, an American think-thank, goes even further in its critique. It recently released a report on Rebound Effects. The idea is that energy savings decrease costs for energy which drives consumers to find new ways to use energy. The end result is that efficiency measures lead to more energy use and not less. It is an economist perspective though and one could ask, if you have a car which uses less gasoline per kilometre will you then drive it more?
Despite the complexities and dilemmas confronting policy makers when trying to improve energy efficiency, the bottom line is that it is a no-brainer. With just a few simple actions we could put European energy use on a fast-track to sustainability.
Energy efficiency is obviously a no-brainer but people need education and incentives to act. To increase citizen awareness on climate change, the Commission ran a campaign called Change. Under the mantra Take control! they gave some simple advice on how individuals can contribute to combat climate change. Put down the thermostat, install double glass windows, don’t leave the TV on stand-by etc. Focusing on buildings and households is not bad considering that over 40% of the EU’s energy use goes into this segment.
By small actions we tackle climate change, reduce energy dependency, lower electricity and gas bills, create healthier living spaces and foster innovation. In the end however, energy efficiency shares the same fundamental part of all environmental policy problems: How do we make people consider the consequences of their actions?
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