The Power Aware Cord: Visualizing Your Energy Usage

International climate and energy policies, including the EU’s 20-20-20 agenda, often contain three key elements: reducing carbon dioxide emissions, investing in renewable energy sources, and improving energy efficiency. But while some progress has been achieved in the first two categories, efforts to improve efficiency have fallen far short. Why?

In theory, energy efficiency is one of the few issues that politicians and policymakers from both sides of the spectrum can agree on: it creates jobs, it saves money, and it is common sense. The Huffington Post recently called efficiency the “gateway drug” of energy policy.

At a panel discussion hosted by Johns Hopkins University and co-sponsored by France, Germany, the U.K., and the EU delegation to the United States, participants agreed that energy efficiency has not been widely embraced as an effective tool to save energy and reduce emissions. This stands in contrast to the wide-ranging public support for renewable energy, especially in Europe. The lack of enthusiasm to improve efficiency may well be the single largest obstacle to reducing energy waste in the long term.

Bo Dahlbom from the Swedish Energy Agency focuses on lifestyle and attitude changes to improve energy efficiency. His program, Energy, IT, and Design, works with consumers to make them more aware of their energy consumption. Because electricity meters are usually hidden in basements, people are often disempowered to keep track of how much they use. Dahlbom’s program employs carefully designed gadgets, such as a “power aware clock,” “power aware cord,” and “flower lamp,” to help customers visualize their consumption and make energy conscious decisions. In addition to focusing on appealing design to create a market for such devices, he believes that toys and gadgets are best suited to influence children’s energy behavior. Energy, IT, and Design proposes “energy competitions” with friends and neighbors through which young people can learn energy efficiency in a competitive environment.

Improving energy efficiency is one of the fastest and most effective ways to reduce emissions and can potentially reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 15–30 percent. Buildings consume more than 40 percent of the world’s energy, and with a replacement rate of just 1–1.5 percent per year, the existing stock of buildings will be around for decades to come. Hence, efforts to improve efficiency need to both target the construction of new buildings as well as convert dirty “brown” buildings into cleaner green ones.

More than 80 percent of the costs of a building, most of which are energy costs, occur after the time of construction. Highlighting the importance of the energy efficiency sector, German company Siemens last week announced a strategic shift toward urban infrastructure and energy services. Siemens Senior VP Bob Dixon believes that a lifetime energy-consumption label, similar to nutritional labels found on most food items, would allow consumers to make smarter, more energy efficient decisions when buying appliances or a house. Consumers are also mostly unaware that a home’s energy efficiency can decline up to 40 percent over its lifetime. In contrast to cars, which undergo inspections at regular intervals to ensure compliance with technical standards, buildings are not required to go through such routine check-ups for efficiency.

The world’s energy consumption is forecasted to double by 2050, while emissions need to be reduced by half. This, says Ross Malme from Schneider Electric, represents an opportunity for rapid growth in the energy efficiency sector, similar to that witnessed in the dot-com industry in the late 1990s. In 2008, energy efficiency was a $156 billion market. By 2020, this could grow to $655 billion, according to Martin Pehnt from the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Germany. Energy policy also will be linked increasingly to social and welfare policy. A program called “Energy Spar Check” retrains the unemployed to work as energy consultants, informing homeowners about the potential for energy savings.

In the end, efforts to improve energy efficiency will not be dominated by a single strategy; instead, they will need to make use of a range of control, enforcement, and incentive mechanisms. However, the success of such policies rests in part on the ability of the public and private sectors to increase awareness about the importance of energy efficiency and to generate support for more stringent efficiency standards.


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building efficiency, emissions reductions, energy consumption, energy efficiency, energy policy, Europe, GHG emissions, greenhouse gas pollution, renewable energy