I was glad to see that Amory Lovins returned to the subject of the size of the energy efficiency resource in a recent paper in Environmental Research Letters. Amory mentions the oil and gas resource and reserve analogy that I wrote about again in May. The energy efficiency resource, just like other resources, is really found in the minds of people and the scale of the energy efficiency resource, just like oil and gas, is defined by our ways of thinking about them. Amory says in one of his brilliant phrases; “energy efficiency resources are infinitely expandable assemblages of ideas that deplete nothing but stupidity – a very abundant if not expanding resource”. My PhD back in the early 1980s, “The Potential for Energy Conserving Capital Equipment in UK Industry”, examined the viability of Gerald Leach’s 1979 Low Energy Strategy for the UK and came to the conclusion that such a future was possible (in industry) even though it involved an improvement in energy efficiency of c.30%. As I have written about before, we have practically achieved that future - a future that back then was regarded as impossible by the energy industry, the government and most analysts at the time.
My view is that the potential using proven technology, current economics and “standard thinking” about energy efficiency is always about 30%. Thinking about energy efficiency in a different way using the integrative design techniques long pushed by Amory and others, but still not widely adopted, increases the size of the economic potential to much higher levels, maybe 60-70%.
As is often the way several ideas or conversations come together at once. I am currently reading “Zeronauts” by environmental business guru John Elkington. It highlights the power of the idea of aiming for zero - zero energy, zero emissions, and zero environmental impact and highlights leaders who have worked to turn this idea into reality. Totally zero may not be possible in a particular situation but it is a powerful organising idea that opens up what may be possible. If leaders and decision makers don’t set a target and simply accept for instance a building built to building regulations, the potential efficiency resource remains unidentified and unexploited. Setting a target of zero energy may not actually result in zero but it certainly expands the way the design team and others think.
At the AECB’s recent conference, which was held in a community centre built to Passive House standards, I visited some Passive Houses and the Passive House technology is another example of how the mind defines the resource. Passive House is a technology, a combination of thinking and physical technologies, that enables the construction of a house that uses much less energy than a house built to building regulations, as well as delivering better comfort. If all new housing was built to Passive House standards the energy saving compared to houses built to code would be immense but most developers don’t even consider it, either because they don’t know about it or they believe it will cost more, or they don’t trust it. It takes leadership, stepping out of the norm, to specify a Passive House design as well as persistence often in the face of opposition.
Many large new developments are now being built with district heating to meet planning regulations. It would be much more cost-effective to simply build the development to Passive House standards, thus eliminating the need for district heating with all of its central plant pipes, heat exchangers and control systems, all of which have on-going maintenance requirements. But again, unless leaders and decision makers consider the possibility, as well as the benefits, that potential energy efficiency resource will not be exploited, locking in unnecessary energy use and complexity for many years or even decades.
To make another connection, this week I participated in the first Advisory Council meeting of the Horizon 2020 funded project, M-Benefits. This important project is developing tools to help decision makers incorporate multiple non-energy benefits into decision making about energy efficiency projects. As I have said before, these non-energy benefits such as health, well-being, productivity, better learning outcomes etc., are far more strategic and therefore far more interesting to decision makers than simple energy cost savings. We need to focus selling efforts for low energy solutions on those benefits and regard energy (& consequent energy cost savings) almost as a bonus. Doing so will lead to better business cases, higher rates of approval for projects and higher investment into energy efficient solutions.
So for any situation, industry, commerce, domestic, or transport, we can continue to think about the energy efficiency resource in the old way – and we will achieve significant economic and environmental gains, or we can change the way we think about it, aim for zero, insist on integrative design and value non-energy benefits and we will achieve far more, far more than the mainstream views on what is possible.