Energy Efficiency vs. Energy Conservation

By Josh SchellenbergPublished: 02 March 2010 6:05 PM UTC

Posted in: Energy Conservation, Energy Efficiency

From reading comments on EnergyDSM.com and LinkedIn, I get the sense that there is a bit of misunderstanding about energy efficiency and energy conservation.  Here are the explanations that I use.  Please comment on how this compares and contrasts with your understanding of energy efficiency, energy conservation and the difference between the two.

What is Energy Efficiency?

Energy efficiency involves technology that produces the same end product while using less energy.  For example, an energy efficient air conditioner produces the same level of cooling capability while using less energy than the average air conditioner on the market. This technology is always changing because a device that was energy efficient 30 years ago is probably not energy efficient today.

Energy efficiency programs have become increasingly popular as global warming has become more of a threat.  As many people in the industry say, “the cleanest energy is the energy never used.”  For example, consider a business that installs solar panels on its office buildings, but does not replace its inefficient light bulbs and air conditioners.  If the inefficient devices were replaced by efficient ones, there may not have even been a need for the solar panels in the first place.  Clean energy powering dirty devices does the world no good.  For this reason, Barack Obama calls energy efficiency “the cheapest, cleanest, fastest energy source.”

What is Energy Conservation?

Although energy conservation is often confused with energy efficiency, it is quite different.  Both involve a reduction in overall energy use, but achieve that goal in different ways.  Conservation involves cutting waste of energy whereas energy efficiency does not.  For example, I can replace my old air conditioner with an energy efficient one, but can still waste energy by running it while I’m not home.  I may have been able to save more energy by changing my behavior or programming my thermostat as opposed to replacing my air conditioner.

Energy conservation has not been as popular as energy efficiency because it is often associated with sacrifice.  If I do not have my air conditioner on while I’m not home, I might be uncomfortable for a few minutes while the house cools down when I get home and turn it on.  If I buy an energy efficient air conditioner instead, I save energy without changing my behavior.  For utilities, it is also much easier to measure the impact of installing an energy efficient device because the energy savings do not depend on human behavior.

Is Energy Conservation Gaining Popularity?

Fortunately, there are many companies out there that are trying to create interesting solutions so that we can conserve energy without having to change our behavior as much.  Sensors can be used that know when someone is in the room and leaving the room.  In the near future, we should be able to use our phones to control home energy use.  If my home is unbearably hot when I arrive, I will be able to turn on the air conditioner when I’m 15 minutes away.  Once these technologies become more widely available, energy conservation will likely gain popularity.  Just remember… it’s not energy efficiency.  It’s energy conservation.

Josh Schellenberg is a Senior Analyst at Freeman, Sullivan & Co. in San Francisco. To contact Josh directly, send him an email at josh@energydsm.com. The opinions and views expressed at EnergyDSM.com (and any typographical errors) do not represent those of Freeman, Sullivan & Co.

Leave a Reply