Energy Efficiency – Killing Us Softly

St. Patrick’s day reminded me that it is high time we learn to tell the real green from the fake stuff, beginning with energy efficiency, which has been unjustly conflated with sustainability, when in fact it does the opposite: it increases carbon emissions over time, except at a slower rate. It’s high time the FTC should start taking on green washing, beginning with such seriously misleading names as the ConEdison Greenteam. The fact is that, when energy efficiency is pursued without further qualification, and it is applied to systems that are 95% driven by fossil fuels, we are shooting ourselves in the foot with a bazooka. Making a bad system better will solve nothing, except making fossil fuels viable longer, instead of finding a real solution. The fact is, efficiency applies equally to fossil fuel-based systems or renewable energy systems, but only renewable energy systems can reduce GHG-emissions. So we are reminded once again, that it does not pay to major in a minor, or, in the words of the incomparable computer scientist Donald Knuth:

Premature optimization is the root of all evil.

Let me count the ways

In no particular order, but with some attempt at logical grouping, here come all the reasons, with some links to other posts on this site or other sites where appropriate. A completely logical and progressive ordering is not feasible due to the interdependence of many of the items listed here.

  1. The obvious issue is that energy efficiency makes economic sense (to the extent that it is optimal) whether fossil fuel or renewable energy is used. Therefore, it is a secondary objective in an optimal design, not a primary one. The payback for efficiency comes from reduced energy bills in the future in the case of fossil fuels, or reduced capital expenditures in the present in the case of renewable energy (less installed capacity needed). Another way to state this is that energy efficiency does not generate energy: it is not an alternative method to generate energy.
  2. Historically, the conflation of energy efficiency with “green” energy or sustainability, goes back to the energy crises of the 1970’s. It was then thought, probably correctly, that the marginal dollar spent on reducing demand was more effective than investing it in increasing supply. The concept was enshrined by the thinking of Amory Lovins, who made the confusion complete by treating energy efficiency as the “fifth fuel.” This type of thinking resulted in policy making that treats energy efficiency and renewable energy as interchangeable and complementary, or even additive, which most often is not the case, because different decisions would be made about energy efficiency in a fossil fuel infrastructure than in a renewable energy system. In truth, energy efficiency is not even an investment, it’s a mere operational savings, and financially it should be treated accordingly. Renewable energy is truly an investment, a make versus buy decision, a permanent price hedge, and it improves building resilience, and adds value to the asset.
  3. Then there is the famous Jevons paradox, which in effect states that increased efficiency increases demand, and therefore does no such thing as conserving energy. Jevons was speaking about coal, and by and large his predictions came true, and are equally relevant today about oil and gas.
  4. It gets better (or worse, depending on your point of view). Steve Hallett, in The Efficiency Trap, takes his perspective from biological/systems thinking, and notes not only that greater efficiency lowers the cost of the energy input and stimulates demand, but there are often knock-on effects. For example not only did we fly more as flying became more efficient, but we also built more airports, etc. The end result is that energy efficiency “improvements” make the problem worse, not better, and we have plenty of historical examples to show this. At the other end, exploration costs are going up all the time, so that the massive carbon deposits we theoretically still have are becoming less and less economical to exploit (even aside from the GHG-emissions question). In short, energy efficiency keeps carbon energy more economical for a longer period of time, and therefore increases GHG-emissions over time, which is the opposite of what we want. Hallett’s conclusion is simply that the road to hell is paved with efficiency. In his words: “Efficiency promises to conserve, but actually consumes. Efficiency is a trap.”
  5. The Jevons paradox and the efficiency trap are bad enough on a macro level, but on an individual project basis we see that if we do our economics right you cannot save yourself rich: energy efficiency yields diminishing returns whereas renewable energy generated on-site can bring compound returns. The truth quickly becomes evident if proper capital budgeting is done for the energy infrastructure of a building (home). Thus, within a given building retrofit, energy efficiency (of the fossil fuel-based infrastructure) competes against renewable energy. As long as payback of the equipment from marginal savings is used for decisions, energy efficiency will initially always seem to outperform renewable energy, but when 30-year cash flow analysis is used, renewable options often prove more attractive. Compound returns can be achieved from engineering synergies by integrating several technologies.
  6. On the margin it is already clear that net-zero building is the healthiest construction sector, and has been so for several decades, regardless of economic cycles, and in downturns these buildings have kept their value better than other buildings. Since in the larger economic sense the rate of change at the margin drives valuation, it should be clear that fossil fuel buildings are going to continue to lose value at an accelerating rate.
  7. Therefore, any older buildings worth preserving should switch to renewable energy and attempt to become net-zero or near-zero, and buildings that cannot make the switch to renewable energy will be the slums of the future, and ultimately headed for demolition. Along those lines the current fashion (think NYC Clean Heat) of switching fuels mostly from coal and heavy fuel to natural gas, amounts to capital destruction. The same applies for energy efficiency initiatives such as New York’s Local Law 84/87/88: these measures constitute majoring in a minor, and therefore guarantee failure in the form of strongly suboptimal outcomes, including, at the extremes, the preservation of some buildings that should be demolished, and the failure to convert other buildings to renewable energy when they have the potential.
  8. A systems approach is needed, and almost all policies and incentives have been targeted at the technology (widgets) level, not the system level. The smallest system, the economic atom of real estate is a single property (house, building), and above that are neighborhoods, towns, cities, regions, states, countries, and eventually the whole world. In some cases regional planning can be very effective, but we should engage everyone from the smallest economic unit of a single property on up. Incentivizing specific technologies leads to market distortions and bad engineering. Solar PPA‘s are a case in point. At 17% efficiency, Solar PV should be the last choice, as solar thermal is 98% efficient (or arguably more, because process heat is easy to store for intra-day usage, which gives you higher returns than selling your kWh’s back to the grid or using expensive chemical batteries).
    Incentives for individual widgets reinforce a bad financial habit of evaluating options based on the payback of the equipment from energy savings, which flies in the face of optimal design on the level of the property as a whole. The Baucus energy tax proposal focuses on overall GHG-reductions, but so far addresses only the supply side of the grid. Clearly, the demand side should be included due to the huge potential for generating energy on-site with renewable energy.
  9. Green finance, so-called, has been a mixed bag of various flavors of asset backed lending, justified by the fact that it is theoretically “low risk” because it offers what are deemed to be largely self-liquidating propositions, based on energy savings. This is a complete fallacy, and energy efficiency loans and solar PPAs may be the subprime loan scandal of future years. In many cases it is the ease of finance, ease of installation (solar PV!), and Wall Street greed, fueled by misplaced incentives, which are fleecing property owners of their equity, locking them into a suboptimal solution. They waste their roof space, and borrowing capacity when with the same space, using solar thermal (98% efficient), they could have easily provided complete HVAC, reduced GHG-emissions by over 50% while homes and buildings become much more valuable in the process.
  10. Securitization of energy efficiency loan portfolios has already encountered some headwinds, and these issues will only become more evident as analysts learn to understand the absence of a sound economic foundation. The typical 15-25% “energy savings,” is easily wiped out by both energy price hikes (the winter of 2014 gave us a taste of that!), and by comparable buildings going the renewable route and eliminating 50-90% of their energy bills, and GHG-emissions. (See #6 above).
  11. The combination of technology-level incentives (such as tax incentives based on Energy Star ratings), and decision making based on marginal payback of equipment, and partial solutions, lead to either the wrong decisions from a whole building level, in some cases such that they lock buildings out of other, superior solutions, or else they risk “cherry picking” a whole building solution – which benefits the financiers who want to write “easy loans,” but rob the building owners of the potential to add value.
  12. Policies which limp on the dueling concepts of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy recall the roulette player who puts equal amounts of black and red. Treating Energy Efficiency as an alternative to Renewable Energy, or as a proxy for GHG-reductions ensures policy failure.

New York State Energy Plan

The review period for the 2014 Draft New York State Energy Plan is still open, and I have supplied my comments along the lines indicated here. On the whole, the plan has the laudable objective of 50% GHG-reductions by 2030 and 80% by 2050, but otherwise continues the errors that have ensured past policy failure by including energy efficiency and fuel switching in the options. Both of these options are environmentally counterproductive, and ensure minor GHG-reductions in the short term at best, and of course, if we want to achieve the objective of 50% GHG-reduction by 2030 and 80% by 2050, we should focus only on projects that can achieve over 50% GHG reduction. Therefore, neither fuel switching nor energy efficiency should be in the plan.

Letting the market take care of energy efficiency

There is huge potential for renewable energy retrofits that can produce 50% or better GHG-reductions right away, and more later, and in ways that make economic sense today, if property owners make use of the right decision-making models. The EPA provides the Energy Star Portfolio Manager to assess projects on a whole building basis, and the resulting models should be evaluated based on a 30-year CAPM cash flow analysis. This will quickly show that many renewable options that seemed expensive are actually economical based on the long tail of zero energy bills, while the 15-25% “energy savings”  from energy efficiency upgrades will quickly be found wanting, unless some of them can be integrated to directly increase the payoff from renewable energy options.

In short, competitive pressures will become more effective if policies and incentives support renewable energy first, and leave it to fossil fuel companies and their customers to work out arrangements for energy efficiency wherever it is economically justifiable.


We are now experiencing a paradigm shift from the fossil-fuel era to the renewable era, and there is huge potential for quantum improvements, even on a building retrofit basis. The major impediment to GHG-reductions is not technology but proper financial analysis along with incentives and programs that reinforce the wrong decisions. In short, as in any other paradigm change, it is our thinking that gets in the way, but that can be corrected. Once you get it, it’s obvious. The 2014 New York State Energy Plan should focus on Renewable Energy, and leave Energy Efficiency to the market.