Between 2005 and 2010, advances in energy efficiency saved eleven advanced western nations — including the U.S. — from burning $420 billion worth of oil. And without those advances, the total energy consumption of those countries would have been 65 percent higher in 2010.
That’s the takeaway from new work by the International Energy Agency (IEA). It’s the first installment of what will be a regular report on energy efficiency by the group, and covers the U.S., the U.K., France, Germany, Australia, Japan, Italy, and several Nordic countries.
Between them all, those countries burned through just over 1,000 Mtoe (million tonnes oil-equivalent) energy; a little over 20 Mtoe of both electricity and natural gas, and around 5 Mtoe of both coal and other sources. On the flip side, they avoided a little over 1,500 Mtoe thanks to energy efficiency. And those gains have been steadily growing since 1974, while actual energy consumption grew only modestly.
Another recent energy efficiency report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), focused on America specifically, found much the same story. Americans actually use less oil now than they did in 1973, our electricity use grew just six percent between 2000 and 2012, and we used less total energy in 2012 than in 1999 despite an economy that’s 25 percent bigger in real terms.
Economic growth actually decoupled from energy consumption back in the late 1970s. The former continued steadily upward, while the latter slowed to a crawl even before the 2008 crash — an indication we’re getting better and better at producing more wealth with less energy.
According to the IEA report, that increased economic bang for every unit of energy consumed has also spread across the ten other countries it studied.
The NRDC study concluded that “additional investments in efficiency could cut U.S. energy consumption by 23 percent by 2020, save customers nearly $700 billion, and create up to 900,000 direct jobs.” And because the investments needed to boost energy efficiency are much smaller than the costs of adding an equivalent amount of new energy, doubling down on the former comes with a host of additional benefits. They include: reduced pressures on energy supply systems, which improves national security, redirecting money that would’ve been spent on energy to other economic sectors, and reducing government spending. The report also identified improved health outcomes fewer imports and an improved trading position, and of course, cuts to the carbon dioxide emissions driving climate change.
In fact, when NRDC modeled its proposal for how the Environmental Protection Agency could structure its upcoming rules to cut carbon emissions from existing power plants, it found energy efficiency driven by the regulations brought a big portion of the gains.
The IEA concluded that energy efficiency gains are driven primarily by high energy prices and policy interventions. The high prices for oil, at least, certainly aren’t going anywhere, as the global market remains caught between the hammer of rising demand and the rock of dwindling supplies. And while policy is improving, the IEA found huge unrealized opportunities for further progress — from better vehicle standards to improved building codes to advances in industry and power generation. Also, investment in energy efficiency across the eleven countries is still less than two-thirds the amount given to fossil fuel subsidies.