This is one of a series of briefings prepared by SONE, in consultation with scientists and engineers, on energy topics for which exaggerated claims are made. Energy conservation is one of these.
Like renewable sources of energy or alternative ways of supplying it, energy conservation has great theoretical potential. It is even seen by “Greens” as a means of eliminating the need for new conventional power stations and especially nuclear plants. The problem lies in realising its potential.
What do we mean by energy conservation? Essentially the term covers two aims:
- to improve the efficiency with which energy is used in machines, appliances, buildings and motor vehicles; and
- to cut out the wasteful use of energy.
In other words, conservation (saving) can be seen in
two ways: in the positive sense of promoting the more efficient use of energy (using less to achieve more);
and in the negative sense of deliberately restricting usage by exhortation (“Switch off Something”), by pricing, including taxation (making it too expensive to waste), or by rationing (compulsion).
Because of the unpopularity of higher prices and compulsion, exaggerated expectations are now placed on energy efficiency, even though, as we shall show, historically greater efficiency has led to greater energy use.
In short, promoting energy conservation is a complex business. It is not simply a matter of applying technology; it also involves persuading people not only to use the available technology but also to change their behaviour when they prize the convenience and comfort brought by higher energy usage.