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The Energy Efficiency Gap & The Research Myth

The Energy Efficiency Gap & The Research Myth thumbnail

Every time energy policy is being discussed, you’ll usually find a call for more R&D spending at the top of the list of ways to solve problems. While I agree that research is great, it’s obviously not enough and, if anything, only the first step.


Unfortunately, calls for more R&D spending can sometimes be nothing more than a distraction – a way to give policy makers an excuse for postponing meaningful action. Nobody dislikes investigating how to solve (big) problems, so it’s only natural that a failure to enact effective policy is accompanied by a little feelgood research spending. The theatre of politics requires the main character to sell this minimal end result of his/her initial ambition as a meaningful success that will eventually accomplish the original goals. This in turn reinforces the public opinion that there are no solutions to the problems of the current energy system.

“Oh my, the problems are gigantic, and thus the solutions have to be big. Since we’ve got not big solutions yet, we obviously need more research before meaningful action is possible!”

Needless to say, there are also economic interests that are more than happy if the public remains in a “Nothing We Can Do About It Now” state of mind, and with the US being a $1.3 trillion energy market (EIA 2011), those are naturally very powerful economic interests.

How Much Energy Efficiency R&D is Necessary?

I think most people would agree that higher energy efficiency is the no-brainer of energy policy. In a world of rising fuel prices, climate change, and geo-political nightmares arising from the location of the remaining easy-to-access (cheap) fossil fuels, it is simply common sense to replace current energy consumption with technology. It is also pretty common knowledge that eliminating the unnecessary waste of energy is the most important & propably “easiest” step to solve our energy problems.

So, how much did the US spend on energy efficiency–related R&D in the past, and did this investment have a significant impact on US energy consumption?

30 Years of Energy Efficiency R&D - Source: IEA

30 Years of Energy Efficiency R&D – Source: IEA

According to IEA statistics, the US spent significantly more than Japan and Germany on energy efficiency–related research. In total, the US invested almost $18 billion (in 2011 prices) over the past three decades. More than 10 times the amount Germany has spent and twice as much as Japan.

Logic dictates that if more R&D spending is actually an incredibly relevant part of solving our energy problems, there should at least be a correlation between spending and the efficiency of these three nations.

To compare the three nations, I’ve looked at the final energy consumption of the different sectors (residential, commercial, industry and transport) in each nation and divided the energy demand by the number of citizens in each nation. The resulting simple indicator reveals how much energy each nation consumes on a per capita basis.


The result of this comparison doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone who is remotely interested in energy issues. There is a massive energy efficiency gap between the US and other world economies. While this is no surprise to many, it should be a lesson for all those who tell the public that meaningful action requires yet more R&D spending. The 200 million citizens of Japan and Germany are proof that even the technology and the concepts of the past can make a huge difference.

So, get cracking America, and start bridging the gap before it becomes an abyss!

One More Thing

You are probably aware that increasing energy efficiency is an important pillar of the German “Energiewende” (energy transition). To showcase the further efficiency potentials German energy experts see, I’ve compiled the following (conservative) guesstimate.


As you can see, there are still massive efficiency potentials that can be unlocked. Some efficiency gains are just a matter of time, while others require effective policy to accelerate long-term trends. In other areas, there is still a lot of technological uncertainty, which makes it hard to predict how much final energy will eventually be required to do the job (looking at you transport sector!).

But one thing is certain, we (humankind) can do this, and we don’t have to wait for some fancy scientific breakthrough to start solving our energy crisis.


In 1995 the share was just 4.7%, growing to 8% by 2000.


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4 Comments on "The Energy Efficiency Gap & The Research Myth"

  1. DC on Wed, 26th Jun 2013 12:43 am 

    The US of coal has two principle means it uses to diffuse calls for meaningful action in the present.

    One, is the method described above. Another variant is very similar, thought slightly different. It goes like this. Yes we know technology X works, now, and is cleaner in every regard, but it needs more research, But someday, in the far distant future, we agree this tech will work, but its just not ‘ready’ yet. This is ‘Stuck in eternal development hell excuse’.

    The other excuse amerikan elites use is the economic excuse. There are several variants of this dodge as well. Some examples.

    -The economy is doing very poorly atm, so we cant afford technology X until the economy improves. Then well invest in X, but until then, we should stick with what we got now.

    -The economy is doing ok, but technology X is too expensive and needs subsidies to compete, therefore we should just stick to what we got now.

    ALso, the author should have pointed out most research ends up going nowhere. In the US, there is no real socity mechanism to translate real innovation to the economy at large. It might come be doled out in dribs or drabs if successful, sometimes, or a lot of times the research in question was useless to begin with. And of coruse, WHO should be doing the research in question? Publicly funded scientists and engineers?, or private, thought heavily subsidized for-profit cartels. Which of the two groups think are going to share there research freely with the public?

    For a perfect example of the ‘Needs more research trope in action-see the electric car. Now I don’t want to argue whether EVs are good idea conceptually(they are not I know this), but the fact is, like them or no, EVs were viable decades ago-they don’t ‘need’ more research, havent for a long time. You can probably find other examples of marginalized or suppressed techs that are similar if you think about it some.

  2. BillT on Wed, 26th Jun 2013 4:05 am 

    Just eliminating the ‘instant on’ feature in all of the appliances and gadgets we own would cut energy use significantly. How about light switches that turn off lights if no one is in the room? Turn off street lights after midnight? Eliminate lighted advertisement signs. Put electric on a sliding cost scale say:
    0-100 kWh @ X/kWh.
    101-200 @ 2X
    201-400 @ 3X
    400-600 @ 4X
    600+ @ 10X/kWh.

    Cost is the best control over use you can get.

  3. deedl on Wed, 26th Jun 2013 7:12 am 

    The main reason for german consumers and also manufacturers to be energy efficent is to save money. This is incentivized by high energy prices, caused by taxes. So in Germany the rising energy efficiency is actually something that brings money to the government (50 billion Euros for oil based fuels and 12 billion Euros for electrictiy).

    Inefficiency in the US is not caused by a lack of solutions but by a lack of applying the known solutions. New R&D just brings more technologiw that nobody will use as long as energy is to cheap. Drive smaller cars, insulate your houses, buy not the fridges and freezers that are the cheapest but the ones that uses the least electricity. It’s that simple, you don’t need hundreds of PhDs to research for that.

  4. Fulton J. Waterloo on Wed, 26th Jun 2013 3:05 pm 

    Right on! For the last 16 years, I drove a diesel powered car that averaged almost 50 miles per gallon, and got 60 on long trips. For 16 years, I did not consume large amounts of fuel while people kept talking about how hydrogen(!) will save us. My car was low tech, and driving it was a no-brainer.

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