Dealing with change

The final approval of the EU’s Energy Efficiency Directive (EED) in October was a symbolic step forward in energy efficiency policy, and it has global implications.  It marked the culmination of almost two years of wrangling over the future of energy efficiency in Europe and its place within energy policy.  Almost everything related to energy efficiency (apart from transport) was on the table.  While the final directive was somewhat weaker than the original Commission proposal, it constitutes a framework for the future.

Our societies are going through massive changes – “transitions”. With the new materials, new technologies and new techniques it is easy to believe that there is no limit to what energy efficiency improvements can be achieved.  But there is, and the EED reflected it.

Policymakers were guided by two major concerns:  energy security and the implications of climate change.  Energy security must remain a clear priority because security issues can recur in many forms for many reasons:  problems with energy supply countries, disruption of pipelines, radical swings in prices, refinery disasters and such.  There are divided views on whether the supply side can “solve” these problems or whether a better balance between supply- and demand-side concerns is needed to reinforce energy security and mitigate against the effects of climate change.  In the end, decision-makers showed less ambition than promoters of energy efficiency may have hoped for but nonetheless, enough to entail a considerable implementation challenge.

Traditionally energy policy didn’t need – or didn’t acknowledge needing – actual energy savings to meet total energy demand. But the Directive is a clear statement that today, we do need energy savings in order to meet GHG emissions and energy security goals. 

The extent of the contribution of energy savings is limited by some popular misconceptions that play into policy development, and no doubt limited the ambition of the Directive. One is the technology argument – the belief that efficient equipment or efficient buildings or efficient cars will bring ever greater energy savings.  True; but faith in limitless ingenuity to invent more efficient machines does not account for the companion tendency for consumers to cancel out the efficiencies by buying ‘more and bigger’ as incomes rise and “needs” expand.  Consumers rarely realize the savings of technological efficiencies because behaviour in a consumer culture is honed to out-consume the efficiencies. Real savings will only be realized when the technology is matched by a culture of saving and efficiency.

The discouraging truth is that in IEA countries we live in a consumer-oriented culture, and the emerging economies and most advanced developing countries are falling into the same consumer trap. We all share a faith in the technology fix.  We too often fail to understand that our behaviour in switching off lights, turning down the temperature, driving more carefully, avoiding unnecessary trips or usage really makes a difference – today, just as twenty or thirty years ago.

The technologies have improved significantly over the decades.  Our ability to use smart technologies to monitor and manage our energy use in our homes has greatly improved, but without the human factor, the impact has been limited. Fortunately, initiatives such as the IEA Implementing Agreement on Demand-Side Management provide some of the tools and awareness that are so needed.

That human factor is multi-dimensional and has to be addressed at multiple levels in energy policy terms. It is crucial to account for consumer behaviour and the human factor in implementing programmes at the national, regional, local or company levels.  At the building level, the behaviour and culture of those “managing” equipment or systems can make a marked difference. 

So, this is the context for the Energy Efficiency Directive.  It is a major element in the EU’s aim (non-binding) to achieve a 20% energy savings by 2020, in line with other targets for GHG emissions and renewable energy deployment.  The current palette of agreed measures (mandatory industrial energy audits, energy supply company obligations, mandatory retrofits for public buildings and so on) are to account for about 15% of the 20% target in Europe.  So, they say.  That could swing in either direction, depending on how seriously it is taken and how determined we are to implement it. But it will depend, too, on human factors.  If there is not a better integration of the human element, it will be difficult to achieve the cost-effective potential.

We are dealing with change.  Energy policy is in a transition.  Climate change policy is going through a transition.   The EED has firmly planted the demand side within overall energy and climate change policy in Europe.  This is a breakthrough.  The transition to a low carbon society is not complete. That transition – in Europe and beyond – is not only a technical one, it is a human one.  And every one of us is part of that process.

 Rod is editor of Energy in Demand, an independent blog on sustainable energy issues