One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: Still Trying To Get Ahead On Energy Efficiency

By Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson, Public Agenda/National Geographic Society

Ever have those days when you feel you just can’t get ahead?

That’s been the story with energy efficiency for some time now. There’s a constant stream of highly touted innovations designed to get the same amount of work done using less energy. You can hardly open up a catalog or walk into a store without being faced with greener and greener options.

So the latest big picture energy reports from the Worldwatch Institute and the U.S. government are a little distressing, because they find we’re not gaining ground at all. The key points to consider:

Gains in efficiency are one reason why energy use per person has stayed relatively flat in the U.S., but we're still not getting ahead - image via National Geographic Society/Public Agenda

The world is slipping when it comes to energy efficiency. A new report from the Worldwatch Institute finds that global “energy intensity” – the amount of energy used to produce a dollar’s worth of goods or services – rose 1.5 percent in 2010. For the last 30 years, the world has been steadily becoming more efficient, producing more and more with less energy per unit. But in 2010, no such luck. We used 1.5 percent more energy per dollar to do all the things we do.

But we may get back on track soon. The reasons for the slowdown in efficiency may be temporary, according to Worldwatch. One reason is that energy prices fell in the wake of the Great Recession, and people are less interested in conserving something when it’s cheap. Secondly, a lot of governments around the world are investing in new infrastructure, both as a way of getting people working again and to plan for long-term growth. These big projects, according to Worldwatch, use up a lot of energy in the short term but in the long run may make the world more efficient, since most of these projects are “greener” than older infrastructure.

This Energy Information Administration graphic shows what the world is up against when it comes to energy use - image via National Geographic Society/EIA

And global demand is still projected to outpace our gains.In the latest International Energy Outlook, the U.S. Energy Information Administration is projecting that global demand will grow by 53 percent by 2035, outpacing any increase in the energy supply. Most of this is caused by increased demand in the developing world, as countries like China and India grow and need huge amounts of energy to keep up. Right now, roughly one-fifth of the world’s population – some 1.4 billion people – don’t have access to electricity at all. But a lot of them are going to get it in the next 20 years or so. Vietnam, for example, has brought electricity to nearly all of its rural households in a little more than a decade, according to the EIA.

A lot of hope is staked on greater efficiency, and with good reason. We can do more with less and do less damage to the planet. For a lot of people, however, it also means not having to make any hard decisions. We’re off the hook, and we can avoid all those messier energy debates like how to phase out fossil fuels, how to make renewables affordable, and whether, perhaps, we ought to start looking at energy as a precious commodity instead of something we can use freely and with abandon.

The problem is that we often underestimate how much energy efficiency it takes to get ahead. For example, energy consumption per person has stayed flat in the United States for 20 years, even as our homes got bigger, our gadgets got fancier, and we drove more miles annually. Why? Because our gadgets have been getting more efficient and more numerous, cancelling each other out. Yes, we’re more energy efficient, but we’re still importing oil and cranking out the greenhouse emissions. What’s more, we’re not making any serious plans for the future when the oil and other fossil fuels we depend will likely be much more expensive. In the United States, our gains in efficiency have kept us running in place. And China and India are expanding at a rate where they’re outstripping the fact that they’re starting off with newer, greener gadgets.

All of which means that relying solely on the natural evolution of technology to solve this for us could really come back to bite us some day. Yes, technology is probably going to continue getting greener (and as world energy prices rise, there will be a lot of incentive for that to happen). But we’re still going to have to make the basic choices about what kinds of energy we’re going to use, and how we’re going to get it. We can’t just ride the trend and hope for the best.

Editor’s Note: This column comes to us as a cross post courtesy of our new partners at the National Geographic Society’s Great Energy Challenge blog. Author credit goes to Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson, Public Agenda/National Geographic Society.

I am the editor-in-chief and founder for EarthTechling. This site is my desire to bring the world of green technology to consumers in a timely and informative matter. Prior to this my previous ventures have included a strong freelance writing career and time spent at Silicon Valley start ups.

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