Banana Farm Summer 2009
How Big Is The Energy Efficiency Resource?
Environmental Research Letters, Volume 13, Number 9
Most economic theorists assume that energy efficiency—the biggest global provider of energy services—is a limited and dwindling resource whose price- and policy-driven adoption will inevitably deplete its potential and raise its cost. Influenced by that theoretical construct, most traditional analysts and deployers of energy efficiency see and exploit only a modest fraction of the worthwhile efficiency resource, saving less and paying more than they should. Yet empirically, modern energy efficiency is, and shows every sign of durably remaining, an expanding-quantity, declining-cost resource. Its adoption is constrained by major but correctable market failures and increasingly motivated by positive externalities. Most importantly, in both newbuild and retrofit applications, its quantity is severalfold larger and its cost lower than most in the energy and climate communities realize. The efficiency resource far exceeds the sum of savings by individual technologies because artfully choosing, combining, sequencing, and timing fewer and simpler technologies can save more energy at lower cost than deploying more and fancier but dis-integrated and randomly timed technologies. Such ‘integrative design’ is not yet widely known or applied, and can seem difficult because it is simple, but is well proven, rapidly evolving, and gradually spreading. Yet the same economic models that could not predict the renewable energy revolution also ignore integrative design and hence cannot recognize most of the efficiency resource or reserves. This analytic gap makes climate-change mitigation look harder and costlier than it really is, diverting attention and investment to inferior options. With energy efficiency as its cornerstone and needing its pace redoubled, climate protection depends critically on seeing and deploying the entire efficiency resource. This requires focusing less on individual technologies than on whole systems (buildings, factories, vehicles, and the larger systems embedding them), and replacing theoretical assumptions about efficiency’s diminishing returns with practitioners’ empirical evidence of expanding returns.