Energy use and energy efficiency are inexplicably linked, with energy efficiency being one of the main factors for explaining changes in energy consumption. Just look at the residential building stock, where changes in heating consumption may be explained by changes in, amongst other factors, the energy efficiency of the buildings.
Jean-Sébastien Broc is a researcher at the Institute for European Energy and Climate Policy Foundation (IEECP).
More than an explanatory factor, energy efficiency is also a resource (e.g., building insulation) that we can use to meet our energy needs while consuming less energy. In doing so, we can reduce our energy bills, our dependency on imported fossil fuels, and our CO2 emissions.
Considering the many benefits that energy efficiency brings to the table, one would think it would be at the forefront of the energy mix. But look at any graph, chart or spreadsheet representing the energy mix at the EU or national levels and you’ll see percentages for oil, natural gas, renewables, etc.
What you won’t see is the energy efficiency share.
And if something isn’t visible, it won’t be prioritised – which is one of the reasons energy efficiency does not come first in planning, policy making and investment.
It’s all about visualisation
If we’re going to implement the Energy Efficiency First principle, a good place to start is to look at how the terms of the energy debate are presented.
While processing and visualising data may sound like a technical issue, it’s actually at the core of framing the political debate.
The good news is that the energy sector has no shortage of data, with digitalisation continuing to open the door to new ways of visualising this data. In fact, Eurostat, the International Energy Agency (IEA) and many national statistical offices or ministries have already developed online platforms where users can select the data they are interested in.
Unfortunately, the data that users can select remains within the limits of existing datasets, where information on energy efficiency is often missing or limited to data about total energy consumption or overall energy intensities (i.e., energy consumption vs. GDP). Although these indicators are in line with the umbrella objective of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, they are a poor proxy for monitoring energy efficiency improvements as their changes over time may be due to various factors, not only energy efficiency.
Energy efficiency data has a timing problem
One of the reasons we lack readily available data on energy efficiency comes down to timing.
Producing energy efficiency data requires combining various datasets (energy consumption and other data) at a disaggregated level. As a result, whereas data on energy supply and consumption typically takes one year to process and validate, energy efficiency data usually takes two years. This means that Eurostat can publish energy statistics from 2022 in 2023 but ODYSSEE-MURE’s data on energy efficiency comes from way back in 2021.
Seen as stale and even irrelevant for the marquee energy publications, energy efficiency data tends to be tucked away in separate reports dedicated to energy efficiency, which are mostly read by the energy efficiency community.
A dotted line to connect the dots
How can we include energy efficiency within the main statistics? To answer that, we must look at the two main ways the energy mix is currently represented:
The picture in a given year, showing the shares of each energy carrier, in pie or bar charts
The movie showing the evolution over a given period, with a stacked-area chart, where each energy carrier has its own area and colour.
The time lag associated with energy efficiency data creates a communication problem for the picture option, as it deals with only one year. The usual energy mix with the latest data (without the energy efficiency share) is surely needed and can’t be replaced by an enhanced energy mix (including the energy efficiency share), but about the previous year.
The movie option offers a workaround. The stacked-area chart shows data for several years in a row. Only data for the last year would be missing for the energy efficiency share (what the energy consumption would have been in the absence of energy efficiency). However, this gap could be filled by extrapolating trends from previous years and then showing the evolution of the last year with a dotted line, making it clear that this is extrapolated data.
This ‘dotted line’ approach would make it possible for the energy efficiency share to be seen beyond the energy efficiency community, connecting it to the energy supply community. Promoting such an integrated approach is one of the objectives of the Energy Efficiency First principle, and this would help get energy efficiency recognised as a resource.
Making energy efficiency visible beyond the energy mix
Another way to make energy efficiency visible is to show its concrete results and impacts.
France provides two interesting examples of regularly publishing energy efficiency results. The first is the monitoring of the white certificates scheme, which publishes quarterly updates about the number of white certificates delivered, with this number corresponding to energy savings. A marketplace also provides monthly values of traded certificates, which gives a price to energy savings and makes it a commodity.
The other example is the development of a national observatory of building renovations. The dashboard is regularly updated with key data about the energy consumption of dwellings, complemented by data on the main incentives for energy renovation and their results in terms of number of dwellings renovated (per renovation action implemented) and energy savings.
Changing the perspective on energy
Part of the reason efficiency is left on the outside looking in is the result of how the energy balance is portrayed. In most cases, energy diagrams start by showing energy sources. They then move to how these sources are transformed into electricity, heat and fuel. Only at the very end do we finally see how the energy is used.
But such a portrayal is backwards and the antithesis of the Energy Efficiency First Principle. Showing energy sources first prioritises producing more when what we need is not energy per se, but the services that energy enables.
Instead, the objective should be to shift the perspective from how much energy we can supply to how much energy we really need, as done in the CLEVER project.
By applying the energy efficiency first principle to the world of statistics, we can make energy efficiency a visible component in the energy mix and, in doing so, ensure that energy efficiency evolves from principle to practice.
This article is based on a new report by the Institute for European Energy and Climate Policy, which was co-funded by the European Climate Foundation and Knauf Insulation: https://ieecp.org/publications/make-energy-efficiency-visible-in-the-energy-mix/