Is Going More Efficient Enough?

Posted by Peter van der Wilt in Energy saving 1 Comment»

Appliances and other electronic equipment are getting more efficient, policy makers are pleased. But is that justified, are we heading in the right direction? Or are we deluding ourselves? According to the IEA (International Energy Association), more than 50% of the targeted reduction in CO2 emissions required to reach international climate goals of 2030 must come from energie conservation. Politicians at the Dutch and European level have been working on this issue for a long time, but the total energy consumption of European households has only increased in the period from 1990 to the present.

Olino focuses a lot of attention on energy efficiency and carries out research on more efficient appliances. Others are working elsewhere on Top 10 sites in which certain categories of major energy consumers in which products such as car models and tv screens of various sizes are rated according to energy efficiency. However, despite all efforts in this direction, there is a problem these products underlying this type of thinking.

Appliances and electronics are getting more efficient, but population growth, smaller households, an explosion in the number of gadgets being used by the average consumer and last-but-not-least the increasing size and luxury of these things has led to a relentless increase in energy consumption. Certain researchers even claim, controversially, that since many modern appliances are less expensive to use this has led to the use of more and more of them.

The European Council for Energy Efficient Economy (ECEEE) held a congress about this issue titled ‘Is efficient sufficient?’ a year ago. According to the ECEEE, the problem is that the most successful examples of energy policy, such as making refrigerators more efficient, at most leads to a stabilization of the energy use of that class of appliance. Never before had people owned a second refrigerator as they do now, nor was the average size as big. Why would you throw your old refrigerator out if your new one barely used any additional energy and added only marginally to your energy costs? So energy use stabilized while the IPCC as we know considered a substantial reduction in energy use as necessary to prevent environmental disaster. In many other cases such as televisions, European policy cannot prevent energy use from rising. ‘Knowledgeable sales reps’ at electronics outlets tell you without a hint of exaggeration that if your couch is more than two metres from the tv set that you need a screen with at least a one metre in diagonal to enjoy a good movie or the six o’clock news. Preceding the introduction of the energy label for televisions, annual energy use in the EU was 70 TWh for televisions alone (that’s right, Terawatt hours!). It is expected to rise to 90 TW hours by 2020. That’s right. Despite the use of energy labels, restrictions on standby consumption and the rise of the ever efficient LCD tv.

The maximum energy consumption allowed to get a top rating for the EU energy label or Energy Star etc, depends on the size of the screen: the bigger the screen, the more they are allowed to consume. A 42 inch wide screen tv has a screen area of 48,6 dm2. (Source: Television Sets (TVs): Recommendations for policy design, August 2011, Anette Michel, Eric Bush, Barbara Josephy; TIG (Topten International Group), Paris.)

Despite the sobering tone of this article, there are solutions. They require creativity, boldness, and robust policy within Europe. ECEEE congress participants made the following recommendations:

  • there should be an absolute limit on the maximum allowable energy usage for a certain product called a sufficiency limit, independent of size and features. Manufacturers can build even bigger tvs, or more luxurious refrigerators with double doors and ice dispensers, as long as they make sure it doesn’t raise energy usage. It’s the same for the much discussed ‘incandescent bulb ban’ – they are not banned at all. If someone invents an incandescent bulb that is efficient enough that it falls within the set limitations, that person can set up shop at any time. This is referred to as technology neutral regulation. Only the result matters, the manufacturer is free to determine how they will achieve this. Lighting policy is a lot less patronizing than our newspapers would have us believe.
  • Because current policy that focuses on categories does not seem to work, a limit on the total energy usage per household may be introduced. State terror? Communism? In France and Italy it is quite normal that households with smaller electricity connections pay a lower rate for their electricity. For instance, they cannot use their ovens and washing machines at the same time. To go from this system in which there is a maximum kVA, to a system limiting annual energy usage is not that big of a step. True free market adherents could even consider a market for kWh rights: those with a limited number of luxury appliances could earn money from their neighbour with a jacuzzi in their yard.

An average tv in the 1950s…

…the average tv in the 2000s. Notice too the number of people watching each set.

In the end, bolder political choices could lead to the ‘2000 Watt society’an idea propagated by the Technical University of Zürich. According to this vision, each individual in the Western World would be limited to no more than 2000 Watts, the equivalent of almost 18,000 kWh per year (not only electricity, but all energy used). Is this too little or too much? Right now the average European uses 6000 Watts (and Americans double that). In the 1960s Switzerland, not a poor country, this limit was still attained.

More good news: a recent English study suggests that a person’s wellbeing depends more on their relative consumption than their absolute consumption. This might mean that a beautiful world with happy people and a clean environment is more likely to be achieved in a society that uses less, but more equitably spread, energy.

More good news: a recent English study suggests that a person’s wellbeing depends more on their relative consumption than their absolute consumption. This might mean that a beautiful world with happy people and a clean environment is more likely to be achieved in a society that uses less, but more equitably spread, energy.

Peter van der Wilt is researcher at Milieu Centraal. He wrote this piece in a personal capacity.

1 reply on “Is Going More Efficient Enough?”

It is true that greater population does not do enough for energy efficiency however we are seeing greater efforts in the commercial sector. Many large companies are beginning to change their energy inefficient fluorescent tube lights and large HPS and Metal Halide with LED lighting. In New York City US many large REITs and land trusts have already retrofitted some of their properties. SL Green Realty and RXR Realty are just a couple the companies taking advantage of the savings. If you would like to learn more visit and read the recent news stories.

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