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The World's Number One Fuel Source Isn't Even a Fuel

Sheryl Carter, Co-Director, Energy Program, San Francisco

The first ever Energy Efficiency Market Report was just released by the International Energy Agency, and it clearly illustrates for the 11 countries* it examined that between 1974 and 2010, energy efficiency was the largest energy resource. In 2010, alone, (the most recent year for which data is available) savings from energy efficiency was greater than the output from any other single fuel source – including coal, oil, nuclear and gas. Who knew?

We already knew from a recently released NRDC report that energy efficiency – stretching our energy dollars to do more with less– is America’s greatest energy resource.  And that despite it being our most productive and cost-effective resource, we keep forgetting it is a resource just like coal and oil but so much cleaner in terms of our air. (Efficiency isn’t even included on the list of the “all of the above” energy strategies being discussed in most public discourse.) This isn’t just an American phenomenon, but a global one that the IEA refers to as the “hidden fuel…hiding in plain sight.”

 260_Thermal Imaging 3.png

Photo of thermal imaging showing energy loss by, under Creative Commons

The IEA report makes a number of other very eye-opening findings with regard to energy efficiency, including:

  • There is a huge economic opportunity to do more globally, and we aren’t even close to tapping it. Two-thirds of the economic potential to improve energy savings and cut its waste (in industry, transport, power generation and buildings) remains untapped in the period to 2035.
  • Investments in energy efficiency (and remember, it costs less than any other resource) are comparable to renewables and fossil power generation investments – totaling $300 billion in 2011. But investments in energy efficiency are still less than two-thirds of the level of fossil fuel subsidies.
  • There are tremendous benefits at stake. Efficiency measures implemented from 2005-2010 saved the energy equivalent of $420 billion worth of oil. Consumers in those 11 countries would have consumed (and paid for) two-thirds more energy than they currently use.
  • Efficiency had a larger effect on restraining energy growth than any structural changes in the economy. Energy use between 1990 and 2010 increased by only 0.5% per year.

The report also found that effective policies (necessary because of fuel subsidies, high transaction costs, information failures and a lack of institutional capacity) had a great deal to do with stimulating the energy efficiency market.  These policies include efficiency standards and labeling, access to energy-saving information and financing, and energy efficiency standards on utilities.

Given its vast untapped potential and enormous benefits, we should not allow the world’s #1 fuel source to remain hidden anymore.

* The 11 countries IEA examined are: Australia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States.

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Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Oct 28, 2013 12:56 pm GMT

As we can see from recent developments in the USA and de EU: “One short ton of coal saved in the USA, is one short ton of coal burned in the EU”.

Improving energy efficiency ultimately does nothing to stop co2 emissions, unless there is concurrent policy to reduce the amount of fossil fuels being burned without mitigation.

Efficiency improvements can make a lot of sense economically, but will not of themselves prevent fossil fuels from being burned. In fact: the higher the efficiency, the higher the cost of fuel can be for the same productivity, which means that more fuel is economical to extract from the ground. This is Jevons’ paradox. 

Every fossil fuel energy efficiency improvement increases the size of the economically extractible fossil fuel reserves as well. This is an exponential relationship. So for example, if the efficiency of using fossil fuels doubles, then the size of economically recoverable reserves quadruples, ceteris paribus. Due to more efficient cars, our economies can now withstand $100 oil, whereas $50 oil was thought to be the limit only a decade ago. Above $50, demand destruction would set in. This is no longer true. This means the tarsands and deepwater oil have now become reserves. This is clear proof that energy efficiency increases the potential for fossil fuel extraction, and hence burning.


Sid Abma's picture
Sid Abma on Oct 29, 2013 5:37 pm GMT

How many chimneys are poking out of the roofs of large commercial buildings and industry and power plants? How much natural gas do these locations consume? How much of that combusted natural gas energy is blown into the atmosphere as HOT exhaust? Wasted Energy

The world is in a battle to reduce Climate Change. (1) Reduce global warming (2) Reduce CO2 emissions (3) Conserve water.

Increasing natural gas energy efficiency can do all 3 items, and at the same time reduce these locations natural gas bills = Profit

The technology is called Condensing Flue Gas Heat Recovery. It is a proven technology that has been in use for over 30 years in North America.

What natural gas is not wasted today, will be there to be used another day.

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Oct 30, 2013 8:18 am GMT

Agreed. but I wonder about the relationship between historical energy use per capita and WGP. Some general comments, partly off-topic I guess, follow.

WGP is far larger today than in 1800 also because high EROEI technologies such as coal, oil, gas and nuclear have enabled a huge number of new economic activities that simply would not exist without high EROEI (and thus cheap) energy. High EROEI energy production frees workers from working in low EROEI energy production (which in 1800 mostly constituted farming) to go do something else unrelated to energy production. Much of this new economic activity does not itself use much energy, but all the same would not exist without the availability of cheap energy to free-up workers.

For example: thanks to cheap energy (for producing fertilizers and pesticides and for running farming equipment) a single farmer today produces far more food than his counterpart in 1800, enabling many people to stop being (energy intensive) farmers and instead become tailors, nurses, journalists, office workers, teachers, etc, all of which add lots of economic product but which uses relatively little additional energy, thus increasing WGP per unit of energy even while the energy used in farming per unit of produced food has actually increased sinch 1800.

So WGP is now 100 times more per unit of energy used than in 1800, as you imply, but this does not I think imply a hundred-fold increase in energy efficiency of energy using activities between 1800 and now. Some or much of the increase in WGP is simply due to the emergence of much modern low-energy intensity economic activity that can only exist due to the abundance of high EROEI, cheap energy freeing-up workers.

Besides, we know that today the energy intensity of the economy in developed nations has been falling only very slowly in recent years, and since the global financial crisis the energy intensity of some economies has even increased during some years.

On another note, as it happens I am a vegetarian (although I eat fish occasionally, and, when I’m faced with a business lunch or dinner lacking a vegetarian option, I’ll eat anything that is put before me). There are a number of reasons I am a vegetarian and one of them is indeed the high energy intensity and environmental impact of food production. For example, it takes between 1 and 20 units of energy to produce 1 unit of food energy equivalent. Beef is is between 10 and 20 units of energy per unit of food energy in the beef, while grain and vegetables are between 1 and 3, units.

Finally, I want to ask if you are the same Willem Post that I hear sometimes on Dutch business radiostation BNR?

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Oct 30, 2013 3:02 pm GMT

Thanks for the explanation.

It is a fantasy to think RE build-outs by mostly developed nations will reverse this situation, because underdeveloped nations continue to increase their use of fossil fuels, i.e., GW is a given for as long as fossil fuels are available.”

I certainly agree with that. The only way to reduce the attraction of fossil fuels is to provide an energy source that is even cheaper, which is nuclear power (if done right). Conversely, making fossils more expensive by artificial means, such as taxation and subsidies, in order to reduce their attraction will not work on the global scale. It’s not even working well in the developed nations.

By the way, China is massively investing in solar and wind – or they used to be. China is hardly a ‘developed nation’ in the normal sense of the word…

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Nov 1, 2013 5:17 am GMT

Efficiency alone can only psych people into thinking they can drive larger cars… (think SUVs). I will brighten up my house even more once the super efficient 200 lumen per watt leds come to market (think Cree). And we will “like” and “share” that excess energy, just as we have already did with cheap and plentiful fossil fuels…


Super efficiency is what is required from the “negawatts community” in order to actually help save the planet. That can only come from zero carbon sources even if not that efficient. A perfect example is using nuclear to power a world full of old (and very inefficient) edison bulbs as compared to a fossil fueled world of super efficient Crees… (which is better?). I’ll promote both the nuclear (LFTR) and the Cree’s!

Here’s a video that touches on the subject from an overall “powering planetary civilization” point of view…

A problem as serious as excess CO2 demands a serious solution.

Geoff Russell's picture
Geoff Russell on Nov 2, 2013 5:37 am GMT

We need to think clearly about the problem we have and the best way to solve it … the problem is climate change and energy efficiency should be given absolutely the lowest priority in terms of research dollars and effort. 


I live in Australia, we have pretty much the dirtiest electricity on the planet at about 850 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour and we use over 10 mega watt hours per person per year of electricity. Which makes us about 30% more efficient than those wasteful Swedes who use over 14 mega watt hours per person per year. What idiots!  Well not really. Their electricity is about 50/50 nuclear/hydro and generates about 20 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour per year. Who gives a damn how much they use!  

If we can produce clean electricity then we can solve the climate problem, but we need huge amounts and it must be clean. We need huge amounts because mucking round with fuel efficiency is just a total waste of time.  Electrify the whole shebbang and it won’t matter how inefficient it is. Ditto synfuel manufacture and a host of other problems. With abundant clean electricity then you can make real efficiency gains because you can recycle far more materials because it won’t matter how inefficient the process is. 

“Efficiency” research is a cop-out and admission of defeat in the real battle which is to build clean energy systems hopefully with a low environmental footprint. We need to minimise the land we screw up for other species, they have already paid a high price for our selfishness. 




Geoff Russell's picture
Geoff Russell on Nov 2, 2013 10:40 am GMT

Read it some time back Willem … it was part of what made me change my anti-nuclear views.  These days I’d regard renewables like wind+solar as a big part of the problem and definitely not part of the solution. They are simply a dead-end distraction. We need mass produced nukes … probably SMR fast spectrum.

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Nov 7, 2013 12:12 pm GMT

Well said. Your message is about as politically incorrect as you can get, but unfortunately you are probably right. It will be hard to convince people of that though. You leave very little opportunity for conventional thinking to latch on to your perspective. Perhaps that is what it has come to, given the abject failure of conventional thinking to make a dent in global GHG emissions to date.

Steven Scannell's picture
Steven Scannell on Nov 12, 2013 8:17 pm GMT

For another look see at my centralized RE system, called the Tripe, short for track pipe, go to my new TV show called the scannell agenda on youtube.  Put the energy in a pipe.  The pipe stores and ships horsepower.   I am making complaints that my system is not formally considered or critiqued.  Thanks. 

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