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Energy saving

By Dave Elliott

Efficient energy end-use is a huge and urgent topic. It obviously makes economic and environmental sense to avoid energy waste in all sectors, but it’s often hard to achieve savings effectively. And it’s often difficult to identify which options work well. POST, the UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, recently came up with a useful review. But, rather glumly, it concluded that, although energy efficiency improvements can reduce fuel poverty and greenhouse gas emissions and improve comfort, health, wellbeing, energy security and economic productivity…. there is insufficient evidence to identify which types of policy are most effective’.  

POST identified the key problems as follows: ‘Energy efficiency measures usually offer real-world energy savings, but often they are lower than predicted. Inaccuracies are attributed to four causes: first, poor quality installation; second, incorrect operation; third, components not performing according to their design specification; and fourth, ‘rebound effects’. Rebound effects often occur when the potential financial savings from energy efficiency improvements lead consumers to increase activity, thus offsetting some of the energy savings.

That doesn’t mean we should not try. The current draft EU aim is to cut overall energy demand by 30% by 2030, and there’s pressure (from MEPs) to raise that to 40%. The EU has adopted the so-called ‘Efficiency First’ Principle. This means, reasonably enough, that investments in energy savings are to be prioritized whenever they cost less or deliver more than building new supply and networks, whether the savings result from energy efficiency or from demand response, i.e. systems designed to reduce demand.  The aim is to make energy savings the ‘First Fuel of Europe’ starting from 2030. Here is a recent EU best practice guide to energy efficiency.

Around the world, big savings have already been made in electricity use in industry and are also possible in the domestic sector. Here’s an early review of progress/impacts in the EU. Also here’s a US take on identifying efficiency optimals – their pricing systems may make it easier.

Buildings are clearly a major target for energy saving, with interventions ranging from small adjustment to major renovations. There are many technical possibilities, some of them with low disruption potential. For example, Berkeley Lab scientists are developing a low-cost paint-on coating to reduce energy losses through windows. It’s estimated that 10% of all the energy used in US buildings can be attributed to window performance, costing building owners about $50 bn p.a., yet the high cost of replacing windows, or retrofitting them with an energy-efficient coating, is a major deterrent. US DoE Lawrence Berkeley National Lab researchers are addressing this problem with creative chemistry, using a polymer heat-reflective coating that can be painted on at, it’s claimed, a tenth of the cost of existing options.

Renovation and upgrading initiatives also offer opportunities for significant gains. For example, in the UK, Sheffield University has been pushing ahead with the Big Energy Upgrade project run by Kirklees Council aimed at reducing fuel poverty, with a whole house energy-saving approach.

Overall, the UKERC says energy efficiency upgrades to home heating, insulation, lighting and appliances could cut annual home energy use in UK by 25% and knock £270 off the average £1,100 p.a. home energy bill. And at the more radical end of the technical spectrum there’s the complete new build option, with low energy/zero emission building fabric design e.g. Passive House+

The scope for saving is also huge in other sectors, including industry. For exemplars of best practices from around the world see this UNEP study. One of its authors noted that a Cambridge University study said that ‘73% of energy used in industry can be saved using currently available technical know-how and technology’. But the IEA says under 1% of global average energy savings are currently achieved by industrial energy efficiency. However, perhaps the most urgent area of all is transport. A new approach is needed to how we move about and why we move about so much, e.g. better urban planning to reduce distances between work, play and shopping. And better community structures making mobility less central to our expectations. But some technical fixes can help to reduce the use of fossil fuel: see my earlier postings.

While at the local level, there are clearly plenty of problems in each sector, the global case for improved efficiency is very strong. With the IEA, WEC and other agencies backing energy efficiency strongly, there is a lot going on around the world. And as IRENA has pointed out, energy efficiency goes hand in hand with renewables expansion – they complement each other.

It also ties in with smart power management. As renewables expand, grid systems will have to be changed and managed to balance the variable inputs. Doing this can also help avoid waste, with supply and demand being better matched, and demand being managed to reduce peaks. We are looking basically to a more efficient system, with less energy waste and demand being reduced wherever possible.

That doesn’t imply lower levels of energy service, although some may elect to reduce their consumption voluntarily and ‘time of use’ variable pricing systems may encourage users to shift their consumption to times when demand is less.  So consumer behaviour may change, and that may lead to reductions in net energy use. Japan did very well on this following Fukushima, when all the nuclear plants were taken offline. With blackouts threatening, there was strong public engagement with the emergency energy-saving Setsuden programme, which had great success in reducing electricity usage by changing consumer behaviour. Japan had built on that subsequently and, with smart energy systems widely adopted, it is one of the most successful countries in terms of improved energy efficiency, with the technical improvements coupled with behavioural changes.

Major national crises, although painful, can evidently have their upside. However, nuclear meltdowns are, fortunately, not that common. Instead of relying on ‘outside’ events like this, or growing awareness of impending climate crises, some look to imposing more draconian approaches to force behavioural change – for example, formal energy rationing systems, or personal carbon credit trading systems. They open up many social and indeed political issues.  Energy use is already rationed by price – many people can’t afford what is available. A formal rationing system might reduce this inequitable access to a key resource. But it would need careful policing and regulation, since, as with all rationing systems, there is a risk of corruption and illicit sales outside the system. For the moment, for good or ill, we are focused mainly on technical improvements to efficiency of energy use, with incentives and nudge- type encouragements to reduce energy waste.

Meantime, renewables keep getting cheaper, now including offshore wind (see my last post). That’s very good news, but it makes energy saving less attractive. That could be a problem. We need both! Not least since reducing demand makes it easier for renewables to supply what’s left.

 

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