Energy Efficiency – The Necessary Cornerstone of U.S. Energy Policy

So far in this blog I’ve focused mostly on energy supply, with only a few references to limiting energy demand. I intend to correct this imbalance by now discussing, in more detail, energy efficiency, the wise use of whatever energy supplies we have, and the reasons I believe energy efficiency should be the cornerstone of U.S. energy policy. I will do so in the context of talking about energy security.

A search of the literature reveals that no precise definition exists for energy security. My approach to addressing this topic is to start by recognizing that energy is a means to an end, not an end in itself (except perhaps to those who sell energy or fuels). Fundamentally, energy is important only as its use facilitates the provision of services that are important to human welfare. These energy services include heating, cooling, lighting, communication, transporting people and goods, commercial activities, and industrial processes.

It is often said that energy is the lifeblood of modern societies, but the use of energy in its various forms, particularly fire, has been critical to human activities over the centuries and has helped shape human society. What is true is that modern societies provide a high level of energy-dependent services to their members and are totally dependent on energy sources that go well beyond human and animal power.

In the 20th century population growth, increasing urbanization, and increasing human welfare led to a rapid rise in electrification and dramatically increased global energy demand.


Transportation proved to be the fastest growing consumer of energy supplies, with well over 90 percent of transportation energy needs provided by petroleum. This pattern is continuing in the 21st century.

Projections by the International Energy Agency, the European Commission, the World Energy Council, the US Energy Information Administration, and others all point to the same general conclusions: there will be increased consumption of all primary energy sources over the next several decades. Specifically, the US Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration, in its International Energy Outlook 2013, projects that, under business-as-usual, total world energy demand will rise from just under 600 Quads (1 Quad = 1.055 Exajoules) today to just over 800 Quads in 2040. Most of this growth will take place in the developing world.


These projections mask a central issue: How urgent is it to reduce growth in global energy demand and related emissions of carbon dioxide, other greenhouse gases, and other pollutants? I believe there is an urgency in a world that is powered today mostly by fossil fuels (80%) and is in the obvious early stages of human-induced global warming and climate change that is now irreversible even if carbon emissions were reduced to zero tomorrow. These impacts include deep ocean and ocean surface heating, more intense storms, glacier melting, rising ocean levels, changes in land temperatures and precipitation patterns, and movement of disease vectors to new regions. A sad corollary is that nations and island locations that had little to nothing to do with creating global warming may end end up suffering its most severe consequences.

The ‘good news’ is that limiting energy demand through increased energy efficiency is in most cases the lowest hanging fruit to be harvested in our struggle to balance energy demand with supply while ensuring that people suffering from energy poverty are being provided needed services. Considerable literature exists on how we can make more efficient use of energy in buildings (insulation, more efficient appliances and lighting, ground source heat pumps, passive solar design), transportation (more fuel efficient cars, trucks ans aircraft, alternative fuels, increased use of public transportation), and industry (more efficient manufacturing technologies). What was once wasted, when energy costs were lower and less attention was paid to energy use, can now be seen as a resource to be mined.


In light of the above I conclude that energy security must rest on two principles: (1) using the least amount of energy to provide a given service, and (2) access to technologies providing a diverse supply of reliable, affordable, and environmentally benign energy. The implications for energy policy are also twofold: (1) priority #1 must be the wise, efficient use of whatever energy supplies are available, whether fossil, nuclear, or renewable, and (2) then, and in parallel with increased efficiency, focus on new energy supplies that meet cost, sustainability and environmental requirements.

The clear message is that energy efficiency, the wise use of energy, must be the cornerstone of national energy policies.


Mohammed Imbabi

Energy efficiency does not just begin at the point of use. It spans the length and breadth of the energy supply chain. So, what we need is a long-term plan. The challenge is, what can we do today to secure a healthy return on investment in energy efficiency that adds to what we do tomorrow?

Mohammed is absolutely right – we need efficiency at every stage of energy extraction, production, and use. A long-term plan requires vision and a willingness to invest for the long term, which is sometimes in short supply.