The tortoise of energy efficiency (EE) always makes sure that we never get more than half-way there, and tries to convince Achilles that by the time he catches up, the tortoise will be ahead again, and he’ll never win, when in fact the reverse is the case. Renewable energy (RE) in the broadest sense is Achilles, who only by fallacious logic could fail to outrun the tortoise of energy efficiency. The truth is, only renewable energy can reduce GHG-emissions in a permanent way, EE creates at best a temporary reduction, at the cost of extending the use, thereby ensuring an overall increase, wherever renewable energy would have been an option. Notice how politicians like to claim we’re half-way there towards some climate change objective, and at the same time they endorse policies (energy efficiency), which positively guarantee that “half-way there” is as far as we will ever get.
As noted in my comments on the Draft 2014 NYS energy plan, if we want to achieve 50% GHG-reductions by 2030, let alone 80% reductions by 2050, we cannot afford to do a single project that does not at least get us a 50% GHG reduction. To continue doing “energy efficiency” projects will allow the tortoise of energy efficiency to waste Achilles’ time with his logical conundrums. Projects that reduce GHGs by 15-25% are the norm in energy efficiency land and won’t cut it. Every single project has to produce over 50% GHG-reduction, and that means that aside from the analytical problems of energy efficiency as an end in itself, we are now entering a time when we simply cannot afford to bother with it anymore, and serious investment in renewable energy should begin.
Lewis Carroll and Energy Efficiency
In short, it’s very much like Lewis Carroll’s story, What the Tortoise said to Achilles, the only way for the tortoise to win against Achilles is by keeping him wrapped around the axle with philosophical paradoxes, going all the way back to Zeno’s paradox. The tortoise argues Achilles can never catch up. The same logic drives the adoption of energy efficiency as policy. It makes no sense, but everyone believes we’ll always be halfway there before renewable energy catches up. Except we’ll never get beyond halfway there.
George Orwell and Energy Efficiency
It gets truly Orwellian when we get to newspeak like “the Fifth Fuel” (Amory Lovins), and “Negawatts,” and to top it all off the energy efficiency “Ministry of Truth” is the EDF’s “Investor Confidence Project.” Their masthead says: “Enabling Markets for Energy Efficiency Investment,” and a little further on they claim they want to deliver “investor ready energy efficiency projects,” a complete non-sequitur. Like any other confidence man, it all starts with some variation of: “I’ll be very honest with you.” And nobody seems to notice that the only reason for all these extra assurances about proper “energy efficiency” projects, is the fact that it is not at all an investable asset, for the simple reason of diminishing returns. So never mind how many bells and whistles you add in order to provide “investor confidence,” anyone who understands the basic financial/economic reasons for diminishing returns on investments in “energy efficiency” would run for the hills.
Obviously, if you own the plant or the building, you want to run it as efficiently as possible, regardless if it runs on fossil fuels or on renewable energy, but that is an operational savings, not a capital investment, unless it is part of the original installation. Energy efficiency, in spite of popular myth and various rationalizations, does not generate electricity, and it is not–in its own right–an investable asset, in spite of all rationalizations to the contrary. Yet a whole industry has grown up around this fallacy. This is the sub-prime sector of the environmental business.
Incrementalism and energy efficiency
Along with the thinking of “energy savings” comes the financial fallacy of the payback period of the equipment based on marginal energy savings, which is a meaningless approach since the only thing that matters is how the equipment adds value to your building, which may be quite a different issue if you take all factors into account. This whole mistaken logic is reinforced by programs like Energy Star, and widget-level incentives.
The incremental approach of energy efficiency and “energy savings” is a paradise for the sellers of widgets, for property owners end up spending money like drunken sailors and the model guarantees they’ll never get there. This is not investment, this is squandering money on a losing proposition in the strictest mathematical sense: diminishing returns. Energy efficiency spending always starts out with some window caulking, and some screwy light bulbs, and progresses to bigger and bigger projects, until finally it culminates in the latest absurdity, the solar PPA.
In the end, the energy efficiency approach leads to a dead-end and then property owners become desperate enough to try some solar PV and “save” a bit on electricity. It seems to be the lowest cost renewable option. Here in the North East, the proportions of electricity to heat & hot water might be in the range of 30% versus 70%, and property owners are now backed into a corner where saving 10% on those 30%, which is their electrical bill, seems like a good deal. In short, they will pay good money to lower their energy bills by 3%. If they do get a PPA, they’ll be paying for it for 20 years, and not only that they will give up most of their usable roof space, without realizing that if they had done a proper plan, they might have gotten a solar thermal installation instead, which could have wiped out most of their heating/cooling and hot water, and reduced their electrical bills at the same time. Solar thermal gives you 5 to 8 times more energy per square area than solar PV.
“Green Finance,” wolf in sheep’s clothing
If the business of finance is: Who has equity that we can steal today? Then “green finance” is a winner. It delivers extortionate finance solutions under the beneficent guise of being “green.” Currently, what goes for “green” finance is Asset Backed Lending on the basis of marginal energy savings, and therefore it drives least cost quick payback equipment sales. The commercial pressure is for solutions that can be offered on this basis as “self-liquidating” propositions.
The net result of this is cherry picking of the clean energy retrofit potential of a property. If you were to look at a whole property, the process of converting to renewable energy is only profitable if it is undertaken as a comprehensive retrofit plan. If the property has been cannibalized by various partial “energy efficiency” solutions, this will undermine a renewable energy retrofit in several ways. It will undermine liquidity, and financial carrying capacity of the property, and from an engineering point of view, ill-conceived partial solutions are likely to get in the way of a more profound clean energy retrofit. Write-offs will result, and this is how the tortoise would win against Achilles. The incrementalism of energy efficiency derails the real solutions of renewable energy.
Profitable Renewable Energy Retrofits
Once you look at properties as an energy investment, it is immediately clear that on-site clean energy generation moves energy from liabilities to assets. Furthermore, if you can integrate multiple technologies in a property, very often legitimate synergies can be accomplished which offer compound returns. In terms of payback, it may mean that two components which by themselves have 7 and 8 year paybacks, suddenly combine to offer a 6 year payback. For example, geothermal heat pumps offer 400% efficiency because they extract free BTUs from the subsoil by heat exchange, but they require some electricity to run. But if you can generate your own electricity with wind, sun or water, you suddenly have a virtuous circle, including storage in the form of pre-heated hot water. These compound returns with renewable energy make it a proper investment, as opposed to the diminishing returns of energy efficiency.
Regressive non-profits in renewable energy
Sadly, the non-profit sector which should be leading the way, is mostly regressive, with NRDC and EDF completely buying into the usurpation of the green objectives by energy efficiency, and oblivious to the fact that they have made themselves into a customer retention program for the fossil fuel industry. The Sierra club is only marginally better, hawking solar leases or PPAs, which are soon to be the sub-prime scandal of the green business.
And then there’s always Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE), which is a smart way to finance the big capital bulge of renewable energy conversions, but the movement has been completely hi-jacked by the energy efficiency cult. This results in the classical problem of financing short term fixes with long term money, but it gets worse, because in its confrontation with the GSEs the PACE camp, barely snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, by hitching their case to energy efficiency, which misses the central point of PACE, namely that with an on-site clean energy retrofit, you are moving energy from liabilities to assets, and therefore this type of an investment permanently raises property values. And of course you’ll do it as efficiently as possible, but that’s entirely secondary. The decision is always between fossil fuels and renewables.
Renewable energy retrofits and Green Underwriting 2.0
Only renewable energy can permanently displace fossil fuels, and energy efficiency is a stalling tactic. For evident reasons, we must shift towards more renewable energy retrofits. That’s where the great GHG-reductions are, and that’s also where asset appreciation is, thus the economic justification, and the legitimate finance opportunity in which the asset appreciation accrues to its owners, instead of being ripped off by the financiers, as in the case of energy efficiency “investments,” which benefits widget manufacturers and energy companies, not property owners. Green finance needs to grow up.
What will tie it all together is a proper green underwriting standard, which incorporates a target of at least 50% GHG-reduction, along with the correct economic analysis of a whole property from the standpoint of make-or-buy (energy), and focused on asset appreciation by generating as much onsite renewable energy as possible, energy efficiency should bring up the rear.