Every time energy policy is being discussed, you’ll usually find a call for more R&D spending at the top of the list of ways to solve problems. While I agree that research is great, it’s obviously not enough and, if anything, only the first step.
Unfortunately, calls for more R&D spending can sometimes be nothing more than a distraction – a way to give policy makers an excuse for postponing meaningful action. Nobody dislikes investigating how to solve (big) problems, so it’s only natural that a failure to enact effective policy is accompanied by a little feelgood research spending. The theatre of politics requires the main character to sell this minimal end result of his/her initial ambition as a meaningful success that will eventually accomplish the original goals. This in turn reinforces the public opinion that there are no solutions to the problems of the current energy system.
“Oh my, the problems are gigantic, and thus the solutions have to be big. Since we’ve got not big solutions yet, we obviously need more research before meaningful action is possible!”
Needless to say, there are also economic interests that are more than happy if the public remains in a “Nothing We Can Do About It Now” state of mind, and with the US being a $1.3 trillion energy market (EIA 2011), those are naturally very powerful economic interests.
How Much Energy Efficiency R&D is Necessary?
I think most people would agree that higher energy efficiency is the no-brainer of energy policy. In a world of rising fuel prices, climate change, and geo-political nightmares arising from the location of the remaining easy-to-access (cheap) fossil fuels, it is simply common sense to replace current energy consumption with technology. It is also pretty common knowledge that eliminating the unnecessary waste of energy is the most important & propably “easiest” step to solve our energy problems.
So, how much did the US spend on energy efficiency–related R&D in the past, and did this investment have a significant impact on US energy consumption?
According to IEA statistics, the US spent significantly more than Japan and Germany on energy efficiency–related research. In total, the US invested almost $18 billion (in 2011 prices) over the past three decades. More than 10 times the amount Germany has spent and twice as much as Japan.
Logic dictates that if more R&D spending is actually an incredibly relevant part of solving our energy problems, there should at least be a correlation between spending and the efficiency of these three nations.
To compare the three nations, I’ve looked at the final energy consumption of the different sectors (residential, commercial, industry and transport) in each nation and divided the energy demand by the number of citizens in each nation. The resulting simple indicator reveals how much energy each nation consumes on a per capita basis.
The result of this comparison doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone who is remotely interested in energy issues. There is a massive energy efficiency gap between the US and other world economies. While this is no surprise to many, it should be a lesson for all those who tell the public that meaningful action requires yet more R&D spending. The 200 million citizens of Japan and Germany are proof that even the technology and the concepts of the past can make a huge difference.
So, get cracking America, and start bridging the gap before it becomes an abyss!
One More Thing
You are probably aware that increasing energy efficiency is an important pillar of the German “Energiewende” (energy transition). To showcase the further efficiency potentials German energy experts see, I’ve compiled the following (conservative) guesstimate.
As you can see, there are still massive efficiency potentials that can be unlocked. Some efficiency gains are just a matter of time, while others require effective policy to accelerate long-term trends. In other areas, there is still a lot of technological uncertainty, which makes it hard to predict how much final energy will eventually be required to do the job (looking at you transport sector!).
But one thing is certain, we (humankind) can do this, and we don’t have to wait for some fancy scientific breakthrough to start solving our energy crisis.