Energy Efficiency Markets LLC

Energy efficiency: not a sound bite business

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Courtesy of Courtesy of Energy Efficiency Markets LLC

I’m a star at the neighborhood playground because I write about energy. Let me explain. I have a young son, and often find myself next to the swings talking with other parents. Inevitably we talk about work. Inevitably it comes up that I know a little about energy. And inevitably I'm surrounded by a crowd that wants to know-- demands to know--why the US doesn’t use more green energy. They are looking for a sound bite answer, like “It is Bush’s fault” or “Exxon is evil.”

Instead, I find myself grasping for an answer, even though I’ve been following this business for 20 years -- or more accurately – because I’ve been following this business for 20 years. Overhauling a nation’s energy infrastructure is no easy task and far more complex than people realize. And unfortunately, this lack of understanding, among politicians and the general public, is what gets us into trouble.

Since the 1970s, we have swung back and forth from urgency to complacency about energy independence. We forget about the problems created by our over-dependence on fossil fuels once gasoline prices drop. We seem to operate under the false impression we can fix our energy problems near instantly should we really need to act. A new World Bank book underscores the complexity of revamping energy infrastructure, in this case, energy efficiency in three countries where demand is growing rapidly.

Called “Financing Energy Efficiency: Lessons from Brazil, China, India and Beyond,” the book finds enormous energy savings opportunities in these countries, which are among the top 10 energy consumers in the word. But to realize the savings, the countries must develop “large numbers of relatively small projects scattered among hundreds of thousands of industries and building complexes.” Needless to say, the logistics are daunting. Moreover, efficiency projects tend to lose when competing for up-front capital against power plants because efficiency is about saving money – a more difficult concept to sell than making money.

But interestingly, it is not lack of capital in these countries that thwarts efficiency but “inadequate organizational and institutional systems for developing projects and accessing funds.” In other words, efficiency is not on the main agenda of business and government.

The challenge for governments is to influence the broad technology choice decisions of investors and encourage them to adopt energy efficiency solutions, according to the book. The problem, the authors say, needs to be fixed on the institutional level and must consider the unique local economies. The book attempts to provide a framework for creating financing systems. With many case studies on ways efficiency has been financed in various countries, this nearly 300-page book makes it no easier to come up with a quick sound bite for why it is a struggle to green our energy supply. But the authors do give some valuable industry perspective on how to get there as the world prepares for a 53% increase in energy demand over the next two decades. It is worth a look.

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