Columnists: Brian Motherway, International Energy Agency (IEA)

Published on: 24 May 2016

Energy efficiency should be more boring – and more exciting!

Recently, I was chairing a discussion on energy efficiency among policy makers when one speaker argued that was is most needed now is to make energy efficiency more exciting. This is a common discussion point- energy efficiency is technical, complex, hard to explain, and yes, hard to get excited about (apart from those zealots among us). At this event, though, another participant immediately disagreed, saying that it is the exact opposite – we need to make energy efficiency boring, normal and everyday, not something that needs special attention. In the interests of democracy, I took a vote on the question and, by a show of hands among the 50 people in the room, we had an exact tie – half calling for energy efficiency to be more exciting, half for it to be more boring.

Why the split? Well of course because the answer is both – in some ways energy efficiency needs to become more exciting, and in some more boring.

Certainly energy efficiency needs more attention. It should be an exciting opportunity for Governments to reduce the costs of decarbonisation, to help with issues like energy security and access, particularly because there is still so much low hanging fruit. It should be an exciting business opportunity – the solutions are proven and the returns are attractive. Thinking in terms of projects and initiatives – upgrade programmes, reducing waste, investing in new technologies – there is a lot to be excited about.

But there are also many ways in which energy efficiency should be completely boring. Bankers like boring – a simple, safe prospect to lend money to. This means clarity and certainty, not messy calculations of rebound effects or degree days. Energy efficiency needs to be able to deliver solidly on what it promises.

For consumers, energy efficiency should not just be boring, it should be normal and routine, invisible even. When we buy a car, build a house, change a lightbulb, why can’t we all just be ultra-efficient without even realising it. Few people think about energy efficiency in purchase decisions, nor should they have to. But the default, the absolute norm, should be highly efficient. It should be shocking to us that the world is otherwise – that people are still buying lightbulbs that waste 95% of the energy they consume, that businesses are installing motors that will cost them a fortune in wasted energy over their lifetime compared to a readily available alternative. Energy efficiency should be built in.

I was in Washington last week for the always excellent EE Global conference. There was plenty of excitement, as there should be, with many great stories from business, from NGOS, from Government, about what is going on in energy efficiency around the world. And as ever, when I hear a great case study of an energy efficiency project that delivered great savings, reduced emissions, improved wellbeing, the first thought is why haven’t a thousand people replicated that already. Why are these excellent stories the exception rather than the norm? And I am struck by how many years we have been saying this for – the big breakthrough is always just around the corner.

Actually though I am quite optimistic about it all. I do think energy efficiency’s day in the sun is fast approaching. Climate will drive it – any path to decarbonisation in any region must centre on efficiency. The emerging economies will drive it – China, Mexico, Indonesia and many others are sharply focused on energy efficiency, motivated by many reasons. Yes climate, but also energy access, competiveness, security, and, not least, addressing growth in demand for energy services in an affordable way. And my own job is part of the IEA’s new, very serious, focus on energy efficiency. We see these emerging economies as key – that is where all the growth will be, and thus where efficiency is most crucial.

As my first column for eceee, I want to say that we at the IEA intend to make a strong global contribution to the energy efficiency agenda. Get in touch - let us know what that should look like, and where you think we can have most impact. We are excited about what we are doing, and we don’t have time to be bored.

Other columns by Brian Motherway