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Tina Casey headshot

Energy Efficiency Unsung Hero Behind U.K. Renewables Surge

By Tina Casey
energy efficiency

Businesses seeking to improve their sustainability profile can gain new opportunities by boosting energy efficiency as well as shifting to renewables.

The latest record-setting developments for wind and solar power tend to grab most of the headlines in the renewable energy revolution. Nevertheless, energy efficiency is an equally important trend. Businesses that seek to improve their sustainability profiles can gain new opportunities by reducing energy use as well as shifting to renewables.

Good news from across the pond

The United Kingdom provides a good example of the hidden role of energy efficiency. Earlier this week, news broke of a new solar power milestone in the U.K. Business Green provided a representative sample of reporting on that topic under the somewhat breathless headline, “High sun: Solar soars to new generation peak.” As reporter Toby Hill explained:

“Bright and clear conditions helped solar break its all-time generation record in the U.K. on Monday, hitting 9.47 gigawatts at noon as it surpassed a previous peak of 9.38 GW set in May 2017.”

As Business Green reported, solar alone accounted for more than 25 percent of the total energy needs in the U.K. last Monday, May 13.

Energy efficiency: The hidden hero

That is a pretty impressive milestone for solar, considering that the U.K. solar industry was virtually non-existent just 10 years ago. In addition, the population and economy of the U.K. were both smaller 10 years ago; the country's population reached 66 million in 2017 and is expected to grow another 7 million by 2041.

On the down side, U.K. planners—and solar critics—are becoming concerned about the large and growing swaths of land that will be needed to keep increasing solar’s share of power generation.

That’s where energy efficiency comes in. Last month, the organization Carbon Brief issued a new analysis of the energy efficiency trend in the U.K. The report didn’t quite receive the media attention it deserved, but it still made a significant point about the relationship between renewables and energy efficiency.

Even as solar was poised to set new records for growth, electricity generation set a new record of its own in 2018—but a lower one, not a higher one. Carbon Brief reported that electricity generation in the U.K. hit a new 25-year low last year.

Carbon Brief noted that the downward trend in generation was coupled with the rise of renewables, which accounted for about 33 percent of generation last year. Counting nuclear power, 53 percent of U.K. generation in 2018 was fossil fuel-free.

Carbon emissions from power generation in the U.K. actually peaked in 2005. Carbon Brief gives lower per-capita electricity generation “co-equal” credit for continuing to push emissions down the increase in population and economic activity.

What if there was no energy efficiency?

The difference made by energy efficiency is stark. Carbon Brief provides this rundown:

The reduction in the U.K.’s per-capita electricity generation has saved 103 terawatt hours (TWh) since 2005, slightly more than the 95 TWh increase in renewable output over the same period. If this electricity had instead been generated from gas, CO2 emissions for the entire U.K. economy would have been around 80 million metric tons (MtCO2), 20 percent higher than the 368MtCO2 total seen in 2017. If it had come from coal emissions it would have been some 180 MtCO2 (50 percent) higher.

Carbon Brief does note that broader economic trends influence electricity generation, so not all of the U.K. trend is due to energy efficiency in the conventional sense of upgrading old equipment. Nevertheless, the lesson is clear: Reducing energy consumption goes hand in hand with renewable energy.

Energy efficiency in the United States

Here in the U.S., energy efficiency has also helped to reduce the nation’s reliance on coal for power generation. And efficiency could help tackle the next fossil fuel challenge, natural gas.

Until recently, low-cost natural gas was the main driver pushing coal out of the power generation market. A more competitive environment for renewables is now threatening natural gas, and flat electricity demand is also playing an important part.

Last month, for example, the Indiana Regulatory Commission rejected a proposal for a new 850-megawatt natural gas power plant. The plant was intended to replace an aging coal plant.

The agency based its decision on the owner’s failure to investigate the potential for renewables to replace coal. It also expressed concern that ratepayers would be stuck with a $781 million investment for the next 30 years, at a time when energy technology is shifting at a rapid clip.

The decision could breathe new life into Indiana’s energy-efficiency policy. The state formerly had a vigorous efficiency standard, but it was dismantled three years ago, and participation in efficiency programs consequently dropped.

Now it appears that the Indiana Regulatory Commission is forcing utilities to re-incentivize energy efficiency, state policy or not. The agency’s decision puts utilities on notice that they can’t simply build their way out of the coal dilemma with new power plants.

Don’t just take our word for it…

Despite a lack of support for climate action from the White House, the U.S. Department of Energy is still leaning on energy efficiency as the key to a sustainable future.

The agency notes that “energy efficiency is one of the easiest and most cost effective ways to combat climate change, clean the air we breathe, improve the competitiveness of our businesses and reduce energy costs for consumers.”

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has also continued to pitch its popular Energy Star program from a climate action angle:

“…Thousands of industrial, commercial, utility, state, and local organizations—including more than 40 percent of the Fortune 500—partner with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to deliver cost-saving energy efficiency solutions that improve air quality and protect the climate…”

Both agencies are also continuing to support the business community with awards programs, public-private partnerships, and other opportunities to promote leadership in energy efficiency.

Image credit: London Array

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey