With energy efficiency sitting high on the political agenda, we caught up with Dr Nick Eyre, a Jackson Senior Research Fellow in Energy at the Environmental Change Institute (ECI) at Oxford's Oriel College, to unravel the tangled web of policy and technology.
Energy efficiency belongs at the heart of a low-carbon economy. By reducing energy use and cutting down on waste, it is possible to reduce energy bills, make energy systems more sustainable, and drive down greenhouse-gas emissions.
Governments have too often neglected the role that energy demand reduction can play in managing energy systems. Yet measures that reduce demand can contribute in a more cost-effective way to meeting energy and climate goals than supply-side measures.
According the government's Energy Efficiency Strategy the UK could be saving 196TWh in 2020, equivalent to 22 power stations, through socially cost-effective investment in energy efficiency. It could also reduce carbon emissions by 41MtCO2e (Million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent), contributing to achieving UK carbon budgets.
Dr Nick Eyre is a Jackson Senior Research Fellow in Energy at the Environmental Change Institute (ECI) at Oxford's Oriel College. He also leads the ECI programme on Lower Carbon Futures. He is a co-director of the multi-university collaboration, the UK Energy Research Centre, leading its research work on energy demand. He has worked as a researcher, consultant and manager on energy and environmental issues since 1984 and was head of policy and director of strategy at the Energy Saving Trust from 1999 to 2007.
Energy efficiency is a much touted phrase at the moment, but what do we actually mean by it?
The definition is the ratio - useful energy service out to energy input. It makes it sound simple, and in many senses it is. The first thing people always think of when you mention energy efficiency is the light bulb. It's fairly trivial in a way, except it does then raise questions like: what is the energy efficiency of a light bulb in a room that's got nobody in it but you leave it switched on? Is switching off lights when you go out of a room part of energy efficiency or not? There's not really an answer to that question. Some people include that sort of behavioural social aspect within the definition and others don't. But there are signs that this is beginning to change and perhaps the fact that you are talking to me now, and also that I have been appointed to serve on the IET Energy Policy Panel, are encouraging signs of a deeper IET interest in energy efficiency.
Although technology has a role to play, don't you think what you're looking at is more of a social perception challenge?
I was talking to a colleague who works on transport and she told me that car ownership among young people in London is falling. Ten years ago people would have said that's never going to happen and yet it has happened, because of a combination of the economic crisis and the realisation that if you live in London and don't travel outside it, you don't need a car. So I think the emphasis on 'doing with less' is probably not very helpful; it's still a 'people' question whether we insulate our houses or use efficient light bulbs because those decisions are made by people. It's a technical question, how much less energy does a house use if you insulate it, but it's a behavioural question whether somebody gets their finger out to insulate it. So it's a combination of the two that really matters.
The government is taking some interest in it at the moment, but it's difficult to know whether or not it's for the 'right' reasons. How would you say the way forward towards greater energy efficiency is going to go?
A I think there are some important technical issues; take the lighting example. We are going to see another generation of lighting change, with light-emitting diode bulbs coming through. At the moment they are prohibitively expensive, but they will get cheaper. I think it's one of the features of end-use technologies that they tend to change quicker than energy-supply technologies.
An early 20th-century engineer would still recognise a code-five power station today. But the lighting technology is the appliance technology: those sorts of things have changed out of all recognition in that time. Obviously we didn't have the computing technologies two generations ago and they change every two or three years.
The rate of technical change is very rapid with energy efficiency technology - the end-use technologies anyway. But the other characteristic is that the decision-making in energy efficiency is done by ordinary people, essentially non-experts. Whereas the decision-making in energy supply - how to build a refinery, how to build a power station - is done by people who live and work within the industry.
Those decision-making processes look very different and I think that's why policy makers often struggle with this area. It is harder to deal with if you've got 60 million people making decisions rather than a small handful and they're not so well trained. The majority of decision-makers in home energy efficiency certainly wouldn't even be able to give you a decent definition of 'energy'.
When you talk to the big motor companies, one of the prime concerns in the design process is the fuel efficiency. Do you think that manufacturers have an important role to play in driving through energy-efficient products?
When you look at the total lifecycle cost of a car then the fuel cost now is a very significant proportion: the American auto industry found that out to its cost, because that's the reason it lost out to Japan.
If you look at the energy cost of a television, it is small compared to the cost of manufacturing that plasma screen to start with. So neither the manufacturer nor the buyer takes a lot of notice of the energy cost at the point of purchase. That's partly because it is a smaller fraction of a cost but it's also to some extent that people don't know how much it is.
People have some idea with energy efficiency labels but they are not sitting down doing cost benefit analysis of what sort of fridge they should buy: they will go and buy a fridge to fit the gap they have got in their kitchen - anything else its secondary.
So, are you saying it's a question of drawing up legislation in order to try and prise the decision-making process from the hands of the consumer?
I think that's the conclusion most people have come to. To expect people to make good decisions about every energy intensive thing that they do in their lives is unrealistic, and people don't want that.
We have standards for fridges and freezers. You can't buy a fridge or a freezer that's worse than a C label now. Most people don't know that and it doesn't matter that they can't buy an inefficient fridge any longer.
I think that we do need to see those progressively ramped up. There's a bit of a cost to the manufacturer, but not a great deal provided they get clear signals that this is going to happen.
With so many options available is it difficult to see what the urgent priorities should be?
The low-hanging fruit is still in buildings because that's where most energy is used. Heating is still the biggest energy user and that's where we've got most of the decision-making complexities and non-optimal decision making if you like.
It looks like low-hanging fruit to economists because it is very cost-effective, but to a behavioural scientist or a sociologist, the complexities are quite large. You need people to be involved and engaged, and that could mean taking things out of the hands of those who write the standards; there are some things you can't standardise. You can't write a standard to make somebody switch off a light when they leave the room or set a standard thermostat setting so that people don't heat buildings to ridiculous levels or open windows and leave radiators on.
It is difficult to expect the general public to make informed decisions when there is so much misinformation in the public domain when it comes to energy efficiency?
What you need is the right information to the right people at the right time. So somebody needs to know about efficiency of fridges when they buy the fridge not any other time. How do you do that? Well probably by getting the people who sell fridges to be well trained in it.
Do you think that smart meters have a role to play in the development of a more sophisticated energy behaviour amongst the public?
The truthful answer is we won't know to what extent it will work until we do it. Certainly the first generation of smart meters tell you how much energy you're using; however the second generation will be able to tell you what you're using and how much of it is your fridge and how much of it is your computer. In principle it's a lot more useful. Some people don't know what appliances are energy hungry, but why should they know?
Simply giving people information doesn't necessarily mean they'll act on it. It's about people understanding what it costs, what the environmental issues associated with it are.
Whilst high energy costs generally make consumers angry, do you think they help to focus our attention on the need to save energy?
We've seen that in the last few years with prices rising. There is a social down-side to that, particularly for people on low incomes, but it makes people pay more attention rather than changing the cost-benefit analysis of particular measures.
That's the key thing. It puts it in people's everyday thoughts. We are seeing that affect energy use in homes: it is beginning to fall in the UK, which is again something that people said might never happen. That's probably a combination of awareness, driven by prices and some big government utility programmes on insulation and better product standards, particularly for boilers. It's going to be that combination of things rather than one magic bullet that allows us to make progress on energy efficiency.
Isn't there a danger that high-energy industrial users such as the cement and chemical sectors will simply move their operations to a region that has less punitive regulations?
AI think they'll be exempt from some of the pricing instruments. The logic behind that is, if you are running an aluminium smelter and electricity is over half of your costs then you get that right. If there's anybody you can point to and say yes they're doing energy efficiency pretty well it's those sorts of industries, because they'd go bust if they didn't.
Price penalties might make a new technology economic that wouldn't otherwise be, but to be honest in most cases it's pretty unlikely as they are operating fairly close to the thermodynamic limits of what they could do. That doesn't mean we won't see technical improvements that will change things, but in many cases it's as likely to be a new process or product as improving the efficiency of old ones. One example is moving to plastics instead of aluminium for example. That's another area where some people will say well that's energy efficiency improvement and others would say that's just a bigger picture issue really.
What about the role that engineers have got to play to ensure that we reduce the demand for energy?
If you look at something such as insulation: yes you can get insulation products for a solid-wall building, but it costs thousands of pounds and that's one of the reasons it's not happening. So there is always going to be a role for engineers in developing better products, and better could mean technically more efficient, but it could mean cheaper as well.
Engineers have got a wider role in society in explaining to people that these things are important. Engineers intuitively understand all sorts of efficiency because that's embedded in their training: their mind set is how to do things better and more efficiently.
I think many engineers don't fully realise that's not what everyone else thinks about the world and that stuff that is obvious to us is not obvious to many people and certainly engineers have got a role in spreading that message about. That interaction between technical sophistication and getting the human dimensions sorted out is what makes this a complex and interesting area.