Energy efficiency is not the same as energy saving


When I was around 20 years old I was, like many young men, interested in cars and dreaming of owning one. At that time I drove the family car: a humble Austin Mini Metro. As someone who was conscientious about the impact on our environment, I found myself looking at the fuel consumption of cars to see which one was the most fuel economic.

From memory: I found that our Mini Metro had the lowest fuel consumption (4.6-4.8 liter/100 km) of them all, then came the medium cars with 5-6 liter/100 km, then the bigger ones with 7-8-9 liter/100 km. At the tail end, the older cars with 10 or more liter/100 km. I remember that most older cars of that time had 13 or more liter/100 km.

Forward thirty years, out of curiosity I looked into it again and came to the conclusion that not much changed during that time. The only thing that really changed is that the clunkers at the tail end weren’t there anymore, but generally the modern cars had about the same fuel consumption as the cars in the beginning of the 1980s. Even the fuel consumption of the engine of a Toyota Prius of today (when driven solely on fuel) was in the same range as the fuel consumption of that of the Mini Metro in the 1980s…

It came as a complete surprise. The car manufacturers pride themselves that they are building more energy efficient engines now, but in these three decades there wasn’t much of the difference in fuel consumption of cars. Aren’t these modern engines more efficient than the old ones? Yes, they are. But the saving done by the more efficient engine was eaten up by more speed, safety and comfort. The 1980s Mini Metro was just a basic car with not much luxury. No electronics, a basic dashboard and it could barely drive 120 km/h (that was not a comfy thing to do though). Compare this to the modern cars with standard climate control and other options that add to the weight of the car or need extra energy from that engine. The engines now are much more efficient than those of thirty years ago, but they have to carry more weight, feed much more options and drive faster than the older cars. Saving would be if we put a modern engine in a Mini Metro and use the power of that engine solely to drive (if that were possible or even desirable, much of that extra weight is safety related). Or use a modern car at a lower speed, but that would not be safe in todays traffic.

This made me think of the Oxfam happening against increasing food and energy prices for the poor at the G7 meeting. This was one of their statements (translated from Dutch):

The energy efficiency should improve 40 percent by 2030, which could mean a saving of 239 billion, or 300 euro annually per household.

I have heard such statements many times before. Not only with the engine efficiency of a car, but also for example with the energy saving light bulb. It was hailed as the solution for saving electricity, but in the end this didn’t materialize.

Don’t get me wrong, saving energy with more efficiency is a noble strive. But two things are mixed here.

First are the savings done by more efficiency, which are real. If an engine is more efficient, it can do more with the same fuel. If a bulb is more efficient, it will give more light for the same electricity. If one has a house or appliances that are more energy efficient, energy will be saved.

The second thing are the economic savings. We could use an efficient engine and have the advantage of more options that makes car driving more fun, safe and/or comfortable. We could use an efficient light bulb and leave them longer on for comfort or we could make a bigger television with money of the savings. We could use more energy efficient houses and appliances and use the savings for an extra vacation by airplane.

The fact that we use more efficient things and saving money by it, doesn’t mean we are actually going to save energy. It is only saving emissions if the savings are not used for some other activity that is using fossil fuels.

The big problem with this is that the poor, who certainly could use this 300 euro, don’t have the money to buy these (more expensive) measures and therefor will not gain from these “savings”. And wasn’t that why there was a happening in the first place…


1 thought on “Energy efficiency is not the same as energy saving

  1. Pingback: These items caught my eye – 9 June 2014 | grumpydenier

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