The world must now solve the complex equation of producing more goods and services while consuming as little energy as possible, to overcome the problem of fossil fuel depletion and reduce global warming. Efficiency and simplicity have to varying degrees become the watchwords for politicians, oil magnates, electricity suppliers, manufacturers, defence and environment specialists. Waste-cutting, which was first mooted after the 1973 oil shock, has now taken on a new urgency in both developed and emerging markets.
Between 1981 and 2010, energy intensity (the amount of energy needed to produce 1 per cent of GDP) fell by 20% worldwide. This decline reached 65% in China, which is hampered by a very archaic industrial and housing fabric. Proving that industry, services and transport are in fact becoming more efficient and less greedy. In its 2008 “Energy-Climate package”, the European Union set itself the ambitious goal of improving efficiency by 20% before 2020. This approach has the virtue of reducing costs for consumers, curbing rising prices by reducing demand, driving down dependence on producer countries, making power systems more secure and protecting the environment.
There are huge pockets of further energy savings. Everyone agrees that improvements to buildings (residential and commercial) are a top priority and in fact, account for 42% of total energy demand (20% for both transport and industry). In this sector, the challenge lies less in educating the consumer as in improving their living conditions. Properly designed and equipped housing can lower consumption by 30%.
There is also a substantial margin for improvement: the average annual consumption of a building in France is 400 kWh/m² while the new standard will be 50 kW/h starting in 2013 for new construction. But with 30 million existing homes (and 300,000 new homes a year), it would take a century and huge amounts of money to solve this problem.
We are undergoing a quiet revolution as the world gradually changes its energy model. The existing model, founded on the production of large plants injecting huge amounts of electricity into a grid of power lines, is being replaced by a new, more flexible, decentralised model, increasingly tailored to the way consumers actually use energy. Energy efficiency is key to this transformation.
Indeed, we have now entered the era of “smart energy”. We have to inject intelligence into the infrastructure and the networks so as to optimize the production and consumption of energy in buildings. This entails installing sensors and smart meters and then connecting these buildings to de-localised energy sources by means of equally smart grids.
Consumers should also be able to control their consumption in an informed way.Rather than being an awareness raising issue. This is once again a question that can only be only answered by innovative R&D focused on new practices. There are many on-going projects in this area and they will soon take on greater visibility.
In light of these developments, the future belongs to innovation champions who can invent and implement smarter energy management systems.