Energy efficiency is low-hanging fruit, experts say
IEA sees it as one of the fastest and most cost-effective ways to cut greenhouse gas emissions
Dubai — What if the world could quickly slash climate-warming emissions, without having to build so much new renewable energy capacity?
That is exactly what some experts say needs to happen, by improving the efficiency of appliances and electricity grids through efforts such as plugging leaks and stopping so-called vampire loads from devices that pull power from wall sockets even when switched off.
By lowering the amount of power needed to perform the same tasks, the world could burn less fossil fuel and spend less on expanding solar or wind capacity.
“We don’t just need to change the way we generate electricity; we need to change the ways we use it,” said Larissa Gross of E3G, a climate think-tank.
At least 118 countries at the COP28 climate summit in Dubai have backed a pledge to improve energy efficiency rates by 4% annually until 2030. That is a doubling of the 2% improvement in efficiency rates seen in 2022.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) has called efficiency the “first fuel” of the energy transition and one of the fastest and most cost-effective ways to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
In its simplest form, energy efficiency can simply mean using appliances, technology or electronics that are designed to consume less energy, such as heat pumps or LED lighting.
At a larger scale, buildings can be designed with better insulation to lessen the need for air conditioning or heating. Factories and cities can improve wiring to get rid of leakages.
As more industries, including transport, seek to power up from the electric grid, rather than through burning fossil fuels, demands on the grid will rise steeply.
“We need to make energy efficiency as sexy as wind turbines,” said Sofie Irgens, head of the climate solutions accelerator at Danish multinational Danfoss, which produces heating and cooling products.
Government regulation can also help by, for example, requiring minimum energy performance standards in appliances, vehicles and manufacturing.
Doubling the global average efficiency rate could provide half of all necessary emissions reductions in 2030, according to the IEA’s Net Zero Roadmap.
For the EU and Britain, it would mean an overall reduction in CO2 emissions of 40-million tonnes annually by 2030. That translates to annual cost savings of €10.5bn, Danfoss estimated in a November white paper.
Industries worldwide could save $437bn a year by 2030 with improved energy efficiency, according to an October industry collective report by the Energy Efficiency Movement.
Switching to electric vehicles (EVs) or heat pumps can offer significant energy savings if they are plugged into grids that increasingly draw on renewable power sources. EVs also waste less of their energy reserve than combustion-engine vehicles powered by petrol.
The US department of energy estimates that EVs now use 77% of their battery energy for power at the wheels. Petrol vehicles can only harness about 12% to 30% of the energy from petrol in their tanks.
Heat pumps can be up to five times more efficient than gas boilers, the IEA says.
In developing countries, including India and parts of Africa, the same logic applies to shifting to electric stoves instead of burning cow dung or firewood to cook.
“Electric cooking is hugely more efficient than biomass cooking,” said energy researcher Nick Eyre at Oxford University.
Since 2020, countries have mobilised about $1-trillion for energy efficiency projects, from building retrofits to public transport and support for EVs.
Energy efficiency thus improved globally in 2023 by about 1.3% compared with last year, slower than the 2% improvement posted in 2022 due largely to rising energy demand, the IEA’s annual Energy Efficiency report reads.
In the US, energy efficiency is beating the global average improvement rate in 2023 at 4%, with $86bn allocated for the goal under the Inflation Reduction Act.
And in the EU, energy was used 5% more efficiently in 2023 after an 8% improvement last year, thanks partly to milder winters. Heat pump sales in Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands together rose 75% in the first half of 2023 compared with the same period last year.
The IEA has also highlighted opportunities in developing countries with growing cities, which can better plan for new energy-efficient buildings as their economies grow.
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