Monday, 4 April 2011

Energy savings potential continues to be greatly underutilised

This week's guest post comes from Paul Parrish - he's responding to my post of two weeks ago about the current nuclear debate.

Paul joined the Quaker Council for European Affairs (QCEA) in November 2010, at a critical time for energy security policy-making in Brussels. A professional atmospheric scientist by training, Paul has applied his education to a range of environmental applications, and is keen to use the expertise gained in these endeavours to advocate a Quaker response to the global challenges of sustainable energy security, climate change and conflict.
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Are we trying to look at how we use energy today, or simply at how we replace it?

Energy choices are at the very heart of the environmental, economic and quality-of-life challenges we face. The sustainability challenge is well identified, and 'business as usual' will not get us there. We urgently need a new appreciation of our energy choices, reflecting the true social and environmental costs.

Yet, if you've been listening to the rhetoric of late, you'd think we didn't have any choice at all, that we were exclusively limited to supply-side solutions. That's the first perceived "truth" to disabuse you of. The second is the contention that expansion of nuclear is key to limiting climate change; it’s more the case that a declining nuclear industry has seized on climate change as a means of reviving its flagging fortunes. There are faster, cheaper, more effective, more flexible and safer ways of getting our emissions down than embracing nuclear. More to the point, the biggest obstacle to sustainability remains consumer demand – fact!

For example, if the European Union reduced its energy consumption by just one per cent, 50 coal plants or 25,000 wind turbine equivalents would not be needed. Moreover, if the EU's 2009 Eco-design Directive were to be implemented fully, the end-use energy savings by 2020 could alleviate the need for another 98 Fukushima-sized nuclear reactors (which is a lot, considering that Europe only has 143 nuclear reactors to start with). And whereas new generation techniques take years to come on stream, energy demand savings and efficiency improvements can be implemented today, with existing technologies and know-how. Just to take one example, University of Cambridge researchers have recently shown that 73 per cent of global energy use could be saved by introducing “best practice” efficiency measures.

While demand reduction is often mentioned alongside supply security, it is rarely a priority for implementation, whether through policy, or through the search for innovation. A much higher political urgency for energy savings and efficiency is essential if we are to have any chance of meeting Europe's Triple 20% climate and energy goals (the three are: cutting greenhouse gases, cutting energy consunmption, and increasing the use of renewables). The result will be lower energy bills for consumers – with potential savings of up to €78 billion annually by 2020 (or approximately €380 per household), the creation of millions of valuable jobs and a massive boost to innovation in low-carbon industries and services.

So don't believe the hype; an overwhelming body of research has shown that behavioural and cultural changes are the most powerful, cost-effective and fastest means to achieving a sustainable future.

A little efficiency goes a long way
While efficiency savings could cut world energy use by 70 per cent, only about a third of the action needed to put European Union countries on a path towards a low carbon economy is currently underway. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), if Europe continues to delay the pace of its de-carbonisation agenda, it will miss the most cost-effective opportunity in a generation to clean up its infrastructure.

Of the options available to us, the efficiency savings potential in our built environment stands out. The potential efficiency savings are enormous, via widespread retrofitting of homes into passive and low-carbon buildings, with decentralised and renewable energy sources. Not only do statistics show that buildings account for 40% of end-use energy consumption, and 36% of the EU's CO2 emissions, but for every euro invested in the sustainable refurbishment of housing, two euros aren't needed for the production of energy.

Energy efficiency in the built environment offers many benefits for home-owners, tenants and housing associations, including more energy-efficient buildings (warmer), an attractive residential environment (better), and significant cost savings for users (cheaper). If we invest significantly in energy savings, the EU economy will not only be more resilient to fossil-fuel price fluctuations, but also benefit from additional growth and job creation in innovative sectors like the manufacturing and export of clean technology.

A slow energy transition assumes continued cheap energy resiliency
Unfortunately, it isn't happening. According to recent estimates, the EU is likely to miss its modest 20% energy reduction goals by half. And in what could be said to be graphic example of Jevons Paradox, recent efficiency gains appear to have been offset by greater energy consumption. (The Jevons Paradox can be seen in operation in many fields. For instance, when new, faster, roads are built, drivers don't save time; they consume more miles.)

This is a shame, because efficiency involves virtually no forfeiture or loss, unlike measures that call for sacrifice. Mundane though they may be, energy efficiency savings do some pretty heroic heavy-lifting in the service of the EU's lofty energy reduction aims. As the Coalition for Energy Savings highlighted, if someone said there is an energy source which offers all this: save millions of euros, no waste, less fuel poverty, innovation training, sustainable employment, safety, lower import bills, inexhaustible, address social inequalities, energy savings, enhance quality of life, reduced emissions, better health, education, energy security …would you support it? Energy efficiency offers all these, but clearly isn't given the sort of urgency and impetus it deserves.

The risk is that we miss our huge opportunities and enter a disappointing path of economic development with low innovation and low growth. What's more, not only do countries and regions which make early progress towards greater energy efficiency strengthen their competitive position, but delaying of the necessary transformation has the potential to weaken governance institutions, eroding the relationship between the governors and the governed.

In the short to mid-term, the smart approach to sustainable energy security must be local and incremental: an approach that focuses on getting the most out of existing infrastructure and opportunities. Energy savings and efficiency improvements are the credible policy strategy needed for speeding up Europe’s low carbon transformation, and restoring public faith in our decision-making bodies.

The underestimated role of individuals
That could be the end of the story, but what really excites those of us in the Sustainable Energy Security programme of the QCEA, is the obvious potential that the public consequently has in delivering on energy policy. The age of cheap oil is over. Efficiency in both primary production and end-use energy consumption is the cheapest way to reduce our dependency upon fossil fuels and nuclear. Given that a 20% energy efficiency saving is roughly equivalent to 14 (proposed) Nabucco gas pipelines, we've seriously got to consider our existing priorities, and the necessary actions that will bring about genuine sustainability.

The problem is not technology, but our organisation and administration. We need to pull together and make it happen. We must also put faith in learning-while-doing, for there is strong evidence that by simply attempting new things, we become better at doing them. Looking back, it will be hard to image that we collectively couldn't do this. In the words of Robert Schuman, one of the founders of the European Union, "it is no longer a question of vain words but of a bold, constructive act."

To this end, I know several people who live out the testimonies in profound and courageous ways, and others who have a simplicity and an integrity that is not easily matched. These adventurous souls embody the shifting of power away from vertically oriented, hierarchical power structures (as exemplified by centralised, top-down, proprietary and closed nuclear power stations), to distributive, collaborative and horizontal power networks. They are powerfully called to witness a world that is transformed, that is sustainable and that is just, challenging the rest of us to ask just how radical is our vision today.

As individuals, we can all share the joys of a simple, spirit-led life. To do so, we need to develop a new, closer relationship with the energy we use, which will encourage us to value our energy more, and to use it less. In sustainability terms, the key question is not whether we have to accept being powered by nuclear, but how long do we remain too comfortable to bring our careless consumption under control.
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Thanks to Paul for this post.
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1 comment:

  1. I don't, of course, disagree with anything that Paul says here. All of this is obviously *necessary*. The question is: is it *sufficient*?

    Sufficient, that is, to enable an orderly transition to a low/zero carbon world, and not a chaotic collapse of the present order.

    There's more interesting discussion of all this on the Political Climate blog:

    (sorry the Comments box doesn't do live hyperlinks),