Energy savings: an easy option but a tough sell

Chief Europe Correspondent

Building renovations, heat pumps and triple-glazed windows are rarely the talk of the town—yet these kinds of energy efficiency measures are central to the European Union’s plan to shed Russian fossil fuels following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

Experience shows energy savings policies are one of the hardest sells.

“We need to be much better at saving energy,” Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s executive vice president in charge of the European Green Deal, said May 18 during the unveiling of REPowerEU, the plan to ditch energy imports from Russia, the EU’s main energy supplier. “The cheapest energy is the energy you don’t use.”

Saving energy is one of the three pillars of the plan, together with boosting the production of clean energy and finding alternative energy suppliers. It has a two-pronged approach: immediate savings by relying on people’s goodwill and legislation that can enforce medium- and long-term measures.

Moments of crisis are always a stark reality check about energy dependency. In fact, the EU’s first energy efficiency regulations were first established in response to the oil crises of the 1970s.

Energy efficiency was “always seen as a second-best option” in the EU’s efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions over the last years, but the war in Ukraine and current high energy prices are changing things, said Arianna Vitali Roscini, secretary general of the Coalition for Energy Savings, a lobby group.

“The idea of saving energy is entering more into people’s minds,” she said. “What is important is to make this systematic and integrate these behaviours into a long-lasting routine.”

But that doesn’t mean it will be easy. Energy efficiency “is invisible,” yet its success hinges on actions by millions of households and businesses, said Jan Rosenow, director of European programs at the Regulatory Assistance Project, an NGO.

“It’s very attractive for policymakers to cut the ribbon of a new wind farm, but less exciting to say: ‘We saved this amount of energy,’” he said.

It’s also complicated and technical, Rosenow added. This leads to a paradox: “Even though energy efficiency pays back, people still don’t know about it, or don’t want to think about it and identify the best solutions.”

Research shows that even with smart technology in their homes, some people can’t be bothered to keep track of their energy use.

Niels Fuglsang, a Danish member of the European Parliament from the Socialists and Democrats group and the lead negotiator on key energy efficiency legislation, echoed these thoughts, pointing to the business sector.

“If it makes economic sense, why don’t they just do it? A lot of the companies can save a lot of money, but it’s not on their radar,” he said. “It also requires a lot of expertise.”

Another problem is that energy efficiency is more fragmented, ranging from heating systems to windows and doors, said Ksenia Petrichenko, energy efficiency policy analyst at the International Energy Agency. “It’s a longer logical chain.”

The bloc barely reached its nonbinding target of reducing energy consumption by 20% by 2020, a success that “seemed unlikely for many years,” according to the European Environment Agency, an advisory body of the EU. It might have only met the goal because the widespread lockdowns in 2020 pushed energy consumption lower.

The European Commission took legal action in November 2020 against 22 of 27 member countries that failed to fully incorporate into national law a recently revised energy efficiency legislation.

In 2020 it also kicked off the Renovation Wave Strategy, a set of recommendations that aim to double renovation rates in the next 10 years and improve the energy performance of buildings. A January report from the Buildings Performance Institute Europe, a think tank, found decarbonization in new buildings is happening too slowly and inconsistently.

Germany, which gets about half of its gas needs from Russia, is looking to revamp its heating sector by making heat pumps mandatory in coming years. Spain also said this week it will introduce temperature controls in public offices this summer.

Buildings are responsible for about 40% of the EU’s energy consumption and 36% of greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector. But only 1% of buildings undergo energy efficiency renovations every year, and roughly 75% are not energy efficient. (The EU still tops recent investment growth in the energy efficiency of buildings globally, according to a recent IEA report.)

The REPowerEU plan proposes boosting the EU’s 2030 energy savings target to 13% from 2020 levels, up from 9%. The Commission’s plan also envisions several other measures meant to facilitate energy savings, from strengthened energy audits to phasing out subsidies for fossil-fuel-based boilers.

It also comes packed with a toolbox of suggestions for how to make it work, from targeted information campaigns on energy waste and free-of-charge advice and inspections, to financial incentives for small service companies, which are struggling to get the loans they need.

The Commission also included its own disclaimer: “The indicated estimated energy savings are dependent on a wide range of factors, including the degree to which individuals respond to publicity and information campaigns and other incitements.”

Amy Harder contributed reporting to this article.