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A New Respect for Energy Productivity

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

by Tracey Crowe, Clean Energy Ministerial Secretariat

Finally… energy efficiency may be getting the respect it deserves.  But that respect and a renewed focus come with a bit of rebranding. Efforts to reframe the issue are now focusing on the “productivity” of energy.  In fact, President Obama used just that term in his State of the Union address on 12 January.  It’s a much needed and very apt reframing.

In the business world, we’re bombarded with measures of productivity, with news stories focusing on the extraordinary productivity of American workers, or Norwegian workers, or Japanese workers. The global markets and industry are obsessed with the ever increasing productivity of workers, wherever they originate.  Shouldn’t we be equally obsessed with the productivity of the energy we generate? 

If you tell a company that their worker is only 33% efficient, will they immediately say let’s just add two more workers so we can get 100% output? Doubtful. They would try to increase the productivity of that one worker (or find a more productive one). That’s what makes business and economic sense for workers and energy. 

For energy, the potential is huge. The Alliance Commission on National Energy Efficiency Policy just came out with a report on the United States that said “doubling energy productivity could create a million new jobs, while saving the average household $1,000 a year and reducing carbon-dioxide emissions by one-third.” In its latest World Energy Outlook report, the International Energy Agency notes “a significant share of the economic potential of energy efficiency globally – four‐fifths in the buildings sector and more than half in industry – remains untapped, mostly due to non‐technical barriers.”

The Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM) recognizes this potential and the barriers to achieving it. A number of CEM initiatives are directly working to address those barriers.  The Global Superior Energy Performance Partnership (GSEP) Initiative, for example, is focused on accelerating the deployment of cool roofs and energy management systems. Roofs and pavement cover about 60% of surfaces in urban environments.  Most of those surfaces are dark in color and absorb sunlight, turning it into heat. That heat exacerbates the effects of climate change and increases energy costs. Simply replacing those surfaces with more reflective material can cool buildings, cities, and the planet. A study from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory estimated that the wide spread use of cool roofs in the United States could reduce the national peak demand for electricity by 6.2–7.2 gigawatt, that is equivalent to eliminating the need to build 12–14 mid-sized power plants. Replacing roofs around the globe with low-cost reflective material could have a cooling effect equivalent to removing 24 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere.  

Simply changing how energy is managed in industrial facilities and commercial buildings can result in significant energy savings. A two-year GSEP pilot project implementing an energy management system at a 3M manufacturing facility in Ontario Canada resulted in a 15.2% energy performance improvement.

Appliances offer another area for significant improvement of energy productivity, and the CEM initiative on Super-efficient Appliance Deployment (SEAD) is focused on harnessing that potential around the globe. SEAD’s work revolves round advancing and promoting efficiency standards for lights, televisions, air conditioners, motors, and more. The SEAD Global Efficiency Medal competition recently recognized the world’s most efficient televisions. The winning models use 33%–44% less energy than televisions with comparable technology. If all televisions sold were as efficient as the SEAD award-winning models, electricity savings globally would be more than 84 terawatt-hours annually by 2020. That’s enough to power New York City for nearly a year and a half, or avoid the need for 28 mid-sized coal-fired power plants.

These efforts, just like energy productivity in general, may not have the same cachet as carbon markets or renewable energy.  But they’re at least as important and, perhaps more critically, they provide win-win opportunities to save energy and save money. The Clean Energy Ministerial will continue to work with energy ministers from partnering governments around the world to make these opportunities a reality.

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