Efficiency: when more is not enough

Don Pettit


The Oxford dictionary defines ‘efficient’ as “working productively with no waste of money or effort.” It is derived from the Latin word meaning ‘accomplish.’

If we are to accomplish a speedy change to renewable energies (and many feel that the fate of the world may hang in the balance) then we need to reduce overall energy demand through efficiency gains. That’s because the faster demand rises (and globally it is rising), the more difficult it is to supply a large fraction of it from cleaner sources.

About 30 percent of the world’s power comes from renewables, if we include existing hydroelectric and the “new” renewables of solar and wind. Hydro is pretty well tapped out globally, while solar and wind are experiencing explosive growth – but still barely enough to keep up with increasing demand, largely from the new growing economies.

To meet the generally accepted climate change goal of 65 percent clean electrons by 2050, “more” will not be enough. We will also need leaps in efficiency. We will need to decrease demand.


I had a classic demonstration of just how much room there is for efficiency improvements when I went solar at my business last year. Installing a five-kilowatt solar array on my roof suddenly made me aware of my energy use. I actually looked at my energy bills carefully for the first time, and then walked around the building thinking about my bad habits (energy habits, that is.)

When I walked into the office, why did I always turn on ALL the lights? Most of them I only used intermittently, when I actually walked into that room to do something. Why not turn them on when I come in and off when I leave? The switch was pretty handy right there by the door.

Had I made it clear to the other businesses in my building that I have a “power down” policy at the end of the day? That is, turn everything off when you leave please, including computers and printers. If we’re not using them, why are they on?

What about all those hidden loads, when something is turned off but is actually still on? (A problem common to many electronic devices. Weird, I know, but true). Plugging them into a power bar and hitting the power bar switch at the end of the day solved that one.

Security lights at the front and back doors used to be regular 60-watt light bulbs. They were on all night and all weekend. By replacing them with 8-watt LED’s, I would save bucks and the hassle of changing them so often.

How about that old yard light for my parking lot? The electric eye that used to turn it on and off burned out years ago, so it was on way too much. Getting really radical, I wondered if I actually needed it, since it was obviously one of the brightest, biggest energy users in the building. So one night I turned it off, and lo, the parking lot was still quite bright from all the streetlights in the area. I didn’t need it at all. (If I had decided to keep it, a new LED motion-sensor yard light would have paid for itself in less than a year).


The result? I slashed my energy bill by two thirds! Astonishing indeed. None of these changes created the least bit of hardship or inconvenience. It was just wasted energy that I didn’t actually need, but was mindlessly paying for.

The entire province, country and world could do the same. Many studies have made it clear that any country can reduce its energy use by at least a third, both in the affluent world and those that are rapidly developing, through straight forward efficiency gains. Our energy systems and our habits of energy use were created over the last hand full of decades at a time of seemingly endless supply when “more” was always “better.”

Now we know. “More” has a price that keeps on growing, and “better” simply means smarter with more money in our pockets. And that will give those new clean renewables of solar and wind a fighting chance to catch up.