Is energy efficiency for hippies?

  • Posted on: 1 July 2016
  • By: Yamina SAHEB

A few months ago, a German colleague of mine from the electricity supply division of the IEA introduced me to visitors as an expert on “that hippie thing”. I don’t know about you, but until that day I had never thought of energy efficiency as something “hippie”.

I asked my colleague why in the world he would consider my area of expertise a “hippie thing”. Surprisingly, instead of answering my question, he started to boast about how important his own expertise, electricity supply, was for our economies. He also insisted on how large and powerful electricity utilities were. He then said: “Let’s imagine for one second that you could save energy (which of course he believed wasn’t possible), wouldn’t this mean less energy traded on the market? What would be traded instead?”

This answer took me 10 years back, when I was about to defend my PhD dissertation. I was submitting CVs on a number of web sites, specifying that I wanted to work in the energy efficiency area. A very well-known French energy firm called me and asked: ”How could energy efficiency relate to our business? We know how to make money by selling energy but we don’t see how energy savings could be a money-maker”. They advised me to remove the word efficiency from my resume if I ever wanted to work in the energy field. For good measure, they also added that training my generation on “useless things” was a waste of time and taxpayer money - as, you see, my PhD had been funded through an ADEME scholarship, the public French energy efficiency agency.

As you can imagine, this first contact with the energy world left me quite shocked. Still, you have to remember that this was:

“Member States shall adopt and aim to achieve an overall national indicative energy savings target of 9 % for the ninth year of application of this Directive”

  • 2 years before the EU Green paper on energy efficiency which placed energy savings at the heart of the EU economy and introduced the 20% efficiency improvement target by 2020.

“a common framework of measures for the promotion of energy efficiency within the Union in order to ensure the achievement of the Union’s 2020 20 % headline target on energy efficiency and to pave the way for further energy efficiency improvements beyond that date”

Back in 2003, some of us could fail to recognise that energy efficiency was a business opportunity. But in 2013, there’s no excuse to ignore the economic importance of energy savings.

We’re all familiar with the balances of trade of IEA countries. But what most of us don’t know is the negative impact of energy expenditures, especially for net importing countries, on our economies.

The impact is even more visible when you compare it with government spending. In most IEA countries that are net energy importers, energy bills are larger than a lot of things… Take the US: did you know that their net energy imports are larger than what the government spends on public order and safety? Energy bills truly are the elephant in the economic room. In Japan, they’re larger than the education budget. In France, larger than the defense budget. In the UK, bigger than the public budget for housing and community amenities. And in Denmark, ironically, larger than the government spending for…environment protection.

When I came back to my electric colleague, I told him that my area of expertise really was all about building a healthier economy. Which is definitely not hippie, if you ask me.

My colleague never came back to buy me lunch. Energy efficiency might have made me miss a job back when I was but a student, and made me blow a free lunch ten years later.

Still a small price to pay for a more efficient world!

This post was published for the first time on February 11, 2013 on the IEA sustainable building centre web site,