Article Summary: Energy efficiency is all about using less energy to get the same result. By adopting energy-efficient products and practices, we can save money on power bills, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, lower the strain on energy infrastructure, and increase security for countries that depend on energy imports. Learn more about the benefits, challenges, and why energy efficiency is important for a sustainable future. 

What is energy efficiency? 

You know it has something to do with your light bulbs, and you’ve seen some nice colour-coded stickers on household appliances at the shops, but what does ‘energy efficiency’ actually mean? 

Put simply, energy efficiency is using less energy to perform the same task or deliver the same level of energy service. When technology converts energy sources into lighting, heating and cooling, or movement, some energy is always lost in this conversion. Energy efficiency reduces the loss of energy that occurs so we end up performing the same task but with less energy input. We’re using less energy to get the same result. 

Five bulbs hanging and energy efficiency
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Why do we want to be energy efficient? 

What’s the big deal about using energy? Well, if you’ve ever cowered at the sight of your electricity bill after a cold winter, you’ll know energy is expensive. But energy efficiency has more benefits than just personal savings. 

Reducing our energy use through more efficient products and processes has significant environmental benefits. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), improvements in energy efficiency can provide more than 50% of the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that is required from the energy sector to meet current energy and climate goals. While switching to renewable energy sources is also required to meet these objectives, improving energy efficiency is the cheapest way to begin reducing the use of fossil fuels immediately. 

But it’s not just about lowering bills and saving the planet; energy efficiency can also reduce the load on energy infrastructure, especially electricity grids. In many developing nations, such as Argentina, summer comes with the expectation of rolling power outages across big cities as the system struggles to cope with the demand for air conditioning services. Even in developed countries like Australia, overloading the regional energy infrastructure caused a state-wide power outage in 2016 in South Australia. More energy efficiency reduces the load on this infrastructure and lessens the risk that it blacks out. 

Many countries that do not have sufficient natural resources often import energy, especially oil, gas, and coal. A classic example of this going wrong is the oil embargo imposed by the Arabic members of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in 1973. By the end of the embargo, the price of oil had risen nearly 300%, and the US experienced its first fuel shortage and petroleum price increases since World War II. Reducing a nation or region’s reliance on energy imports provides more security for their economies and local industries. 

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How can we make things energy efficient?

Fortunately there is plenty of opportunity to use energy more efficiently. For existing facilities that use energy it’s usually possible to reduce energy usage by around 20% by implementing upgrades – such as switching to LED lights – and changing or adjusting processes. This usually provides a very good return on investment. An organisation with a sustained commitment to managing and minimizing its energy use can usually achieve much larger savings. Typically an energy auditor would be involved in identifying how to make an existing facility more efficient, identifying actions to take and the expected costs and benefits. 

Improvements in energy efficiency can also be achieved by adopting new technologies or production processes, or by leveraging natural processes or design to reduce energy waste. 

Improvements in appliance technologies means that they are more energy efficient, and transportation and buildings are also key sectors that have a lot to gain from energy efficiency. 

Hybrid or electric vehicles use less fuel than gasoline-fueled cars and have improved fuel economy. Other vehicles like trucks are designed to reduce air resistance. Improving the insulation or ventilation of a building can reduce the need for heating and cooling, or make existing heating and cooling systems more efficient and less wasteful. 

New developments in design and architecture are leading to concepts such as solar passive design, which leverages the surrounding environment (terrain, climate, available materials) to cool, heat, ventilate and provide lighting to a building design but with little or no use of active systems. In some places, plans are being made to not just design sustainable buildings, but entire neighbourhoods, and even cities, that are energy efficient, environmentally friendly, and comfortable for residents. 

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What’s stopping us from making everything energy efficient? 

Energy efficiency is often considered a ‘win-win’ situation as it’s easy to see that everyone benefits. Why, then, isn’t everyone on board? 

While it’s easy enough to make small changes on an individual level, making changes at a commercial or industrial scale requires more planning. An energy audit can be a useful way of preparing a business case for the investment in energy efficiency, but often companies don’t know how to best implement this information. 

Another barrier to energy efficiency is that national and regional regulatory frameworks and policies also still favor carbon-based energy sources, especially in developing countries. As the Earth’s population continues to grow, and the standard of living continues to trend upwards, energy use and the demand for stable and reliable energy will continue to increase. Providing sufficient and efficient energy supply, while also mitigating the effects of climate change, is a challenge for the global community that requires collaboration and education across borders.  

Energy efficiency and sustainability

 Energy efficiency has many benefits for individuals, communities, countries, and regions, and can help mitigate the effects of climate change. But on its own it is not enough for a sustainable system, as a large part of global energy still relies on fossil fuels. Energy efficiency and renewable energies are the twin pillars of sustainable energy use, and major commitments to both of these are required to achieve a global sustainable energy economy.

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