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Clean Power End-use technology or Energy Supply development?

Published on October 29th, 2012 | by Joshua S Hill


Should We Focus on Energy Efficiency or Energy Supply?

October 29th, 2012 by  

A new study released last week has looked at the implications of switching the focus of mitigating climate change from developing energy supply technologies towards developing energy efficient cars, buildings, and domestic appliances.

The study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change shows that twice as much effort is currently being directed towards developing supply technologies such as new power stations than is being directed towards improving the efficiency of end-use technologies.

End-use technology or Energy Supply development?

“About two-thirds of all public innovation efforts are directed toward energy supply technologies,” explained  Dr. Charlie Wilson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia who led the study.

“It is vital that innovations in renewable energy supply continue, but the imbalance in spending needs to be redressed urgently to mitigate climate change. Evidence strongly suggests that energy end-use and efficiency currently stand as the most effective ways to mitigate climate change.”

“Efficiency gets short shrift in both public energy research and development, and in private market investments alike,” said Study co-author Prof Arnulf Grubler, of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) and Yale University. “In contrast, improvements in technologies like domestic appliances and more energy-efficient transport are underrepresented given their potential for mitigating climate change.”

The study, led by Dr Wilson in collaboration with an international team of scientists fro Austria and the US, assessed energy technology innovation and quantified the relative emphasis placed on energy supply technology versus the technologies that are using the energy supplied.

The researchers considered three desirable outcomes of energy innovation — the potential for greenhouse gas emission reductions; broader social, environmental and energy security benefits; and the potential for technological improvements.

What they found might be surprising to those advocating a clear focus on developing energy supply technologies.

Energy end-use outperforms supply technology in each of the three desirable outcomes listed above. According to the researchers, “they occupy a greater share of energy system investments and capacity, and engage higher levels of private sector activity, they offer higher potential cost reductions, and they provide higher social returns and higher emission reduction potentials.”

“Directed innovation efforts are trying to push energy supply technologies to mitigate climate change into a market that’s already heavily occupied by subsidised incumbents,” explained Dr Wilson.

“The multitude of small-scale innovations that improve end-use efficiency often go unnoticed because they don’t have the glamour of solar panels and wind turbines, and they don’t benefit from the well-established institutions, powerful market interests, and political influence that support supply technologies such as fossil fuels, nuclear, and wind and solar power. Yet end-use efficiency innovations have more potential and provide higher social returns on investments.”

Source: University of East Anglia
Image Source: Raymond Shobe (some rights reserved)

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About the Author

I’m a Christian, a nerd, a geek, and I believe that we’re pretty quickly directing planet-Earth into hell in a handbasket!

I also write for Fantasy Book Review (.co.uk), and can be found writing articles for a variety of other sites. Check me out at about.me for more.

  • wattleberry

    One thought-and I have no idea what degree of significance needs to be attached to this-is that it is quite conceivable that, in the not too distant future,there will be such an abundance of renewable energy there will no longer be any perceived need for conservation.
    The concernt I have is the extent, if any, the heat thus released will itself have a global warming effect irrespective of greenhouse gases?
    Somebody may be able to allay my anxiety but somehow a continuing development of energy-saving seems more comfortable.

    • Bob_Wallace

      The energy coming in from the Sun and up from under Earth’s surface is going to become heat one way or another. Renewable generation just lets us turn it into a usable form along the way. We grab it in the form of sunlight or wind, light a bulb or turn a wheel. The energy given off in those processes would have become heat or were already heat.

      No net increase.

      The stored energy in underground carbon is what is killing us. Literally.

  • Depending on whose numbers you believe, the built environment accounts for 50 to 70 percent of total US energy use: a large plurality, if not an absolute majority. Increasing the efficiency of that environment would deliver several benefits:

    1. It would be the biggest job creator in the history of humankind (with the possible exception of China’s Great Wall);

    2. The majority of the money would be spent, ipso facto, here in America;

    3. The ROI on that investment would be positive. Operations costs would be a fraction of the previous standard.

    4. The net carbon output would be reduced dramatically. In some cases (viz., the Masdar HQ), it would be reduced to a negative number, with the building generating more energy that it consumed.

    5. Last but far from least, the indirect costs of ensuring access to fossil fuels for heating/cooling (the DoD budget, the DoHS budget, to name two) would at least have a more plausible excuse for going down.

    Think of it as a Manhattan Project for Energy Security. We certainly have the technology to do it. All we need is the political will.

  • Yo

    Rebuild Dr Tesla’s power tower and we do not have to worry abour supply anymore.

  • freedomev

    Eff has greatly increased at least in the US!! So much we haven’t need much new generation for 20 yrs!
    —— The products I’ve bought recently are 50-80% more eff which is ammazing and they cost less ;^P Nor do I suffer in anyway.
    ——-As for supply it too has done rather well on the RE and NG side with RE costs dropping like a rock especially PV that is now 20% of what it cost 7 yrs ago, so much if well shopped beats any other utility power in most places. I buy it under $1k/kw retail sunelec key word as 1 source.
    ——-My light EV’s take so little power to run I don’t even notice it on my bill but their full cost for everything, Tag, batteries, tires, electricity is about 25% of a similar gas car.
    ———So as others here have said the very obvious answer is both. All one has to do is research a little and large savings in $ is available to those who bother. Since many energy star regulations are now in effect here most have little choice in many products.

  • Dave2020

    “Directed innovation efforts are trying to push energy supply technologies to mitigate climate change . . . . . . into a market that’s already heavily occupied by subsidised incumbents.”

    There’s nothing wrong with the objective. It is the ‘market’ that’s the problem. The ‘incumbents’ have the power to rig it in their favour. It ain’t ‘free’ by any stretch of the imagination. That’s why the wrong energy industries get the subsidies!

    So, “Should We Focus on Energy Efficiency or Energy Supply?

    Isn’t it obvious that we need both?

    e.g. The laws of physics make EVs the “more energy-efficient transport”, but to gain the full benefits the electricity supply must be zero carbon.

    Level out the market with a decent tax on GHG emissions.

    In a long article about the German experience, one key statement alludes to a universal problem in the ‘market system’. i.e. innovation is expensive and risky.

    “The current subsidies don’t encourage innovation as much as they make existing technologies profitable.” Bean counters think it’s safer that way.


    But their energy economist makes the same mistake:-

    “If reducing emissions were the focus, more money would be directed toward reducing energy use.”

  • dynamo.joe

    The problem with efficiency, is zealotry. It seems like many products that are designed for efficiency sacrifice EVERYTHING on the altar of efficiency. For instance Amory Lovins (greatest name ever) designed the hypercar with every single efficiency upgrade he could think of and the result was basically a geo metro that got 100mpg instead of 50mpg.

    Great! Except no one but the zealots wants a geo metro (and the ne plus ultra zealots out there are confused by why anyone has a car in the 1st place). You know what the normals wanted? A cross-over mini SUV made of carbon fiber with a hybrid drive train that gets 40mpg. That’s a lot more efficient than the 22mpg cross-over they are currently driving.

    If you are asking most people to pay you to make a sacrifice, the vast majority will say “no, thank you”.

    • Bob_Wallace

      The trick is to find ways to make things efficient without causing discomfort.

      We have done wonders with things like refrigerators. No one has suffered because our refrigerators became 2x, 3x more efficient.

      We aren’t likely to solve our energy and climate problems by asking people to sacrifice, most won’t. (Although give folks a few more extreme storms like today’s and some will be willing to sacrifice a bit.)

      Computers, computer monitors, TVs, light bulbs, cars, airplanes – all examples of products that have become much more efficient while still providing the same or better comfort/utility.

      • dcard88

        yes, in my house the kids leave on the TV, lights, and computers, even when the leave the house. I need to install some kind of timers for the lights and make sure the computers have correct power savers modes working correctly

        • Bob_Wallace

          How about a plan to share utility bill savings with them? Right now there’s no cost to them for wasting and you’re eating 100% of the cost.

          Average the monthly use over the previous year or two and give them 50% of whatever they can save.

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