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Slow progress

April 4, 2012

EU leaders this week failed to agree on ambitious targets to improve the bloc's energy efficiency by 2020. Experts say progress towards smarter energy use lags behind progress on renewables.

A hand puts money is a house-shaped piggy bank
Making a building energy-efficient means saving moneyImage: Fotolia/Karen Roach

Campaigners on Wednesday criticized a proposal by the Danish EU presidency to improve the European Union's record on energy efficiency as too weak, warning it fell far short of ambitious energy saving targets.

The EU has set itself a "20-20-20" goal; a 20 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, compared with 1990 levels; a 20 percent increase in the share of renewables in the energy mix; and a 20 percent increase in energy efficiency.

While the switch to renewable energies is on track, experts say, many European nations including Germany are seriously lagging behind on energy saving. The European Commission estimates that without additional measures, energy consumption in the 27-nation bloc will only decline by 10 percent by 2020.

Cheap and profitable

Experts agree that saving energy remains the cheapest solution to protecting the climate and reducing reliance on oil and gas.

According to the Germany-based Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, investing money in efficient insulation, lighting, cooling, electric pumps, and smart meters for buildings always pays off.

"Such investments are usually very profitable," Stefan Thomas, head of the institute's Energy, Transport and Climate Policy research group, told DW. The extra costs incurred in acquiring and installing energy-efficient products are more than offset by reduced long-term costs.

A comparison of costs show that an investment of one euro in an energy-efficient measure results in savings of between 2 and 5 euros, according to Thomas.

An energy-efficient house in Cologne
A profitable investment - energy-efficient measures for this Cologne house cost 25,000 Euros. But energy use dropped by over 60 percentImage: DW/Gero Rueter

A jobs machine?

The view is echoed by climate officials in the EU. EU Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard has said that energy efficiency could help tackle rising energy costs and wean Europe off expensive energy imports.

Hedegaard said that oil costs in Europe amounted to 315 billion Euros in 2011, an increase of 40 percent compared to the previous year.

"Why don't we do something substantial to reduce this oil bill, increase energy efficiency, give less money to the Saudi Arabians of this world and invest more in Europe?" Hedegaard said in an interview with EurActiv in February. "The big advantage would be that it would create jobs right now," she said.

The former president of the Wuppertal Institute, Peter Hennike found in a study that a targeted energy efficiency policy in Germany alone would create half a million jobs and help German industry make energy savings of around 50 billion Euros by 2020.

The European Union hopes to push energy saving to the top of the agenda with the Energy Efficiency Directive. Both the EU Commission and the EU parliament want to make it mandatory for member states to cut energy consumption by an annual 1.5 percent compared to the previous year. Progress is meant to be reviewed by the EU Commission every two years.

Denmarkleads the way

Some member states such as Denmark already play a leading role in energy efficiency. Stefan Thomas points out that for the past 15 years, Denmark has consistently implemented measures to boost energy efficiency. That makes it the only EU member nation capable of reaching the ambitious 20 percent energy saving target by 2020.

Danish utilities are bound by law to ensure that energy consumption is slashed by 1.25 percent each year. Customers are advised by energy companies and receive subsidies for buying things like insulation or a more efficient refrigerator.

The resulting costs for consultancy and subsidies passed on to the energy price, but since overall energy use declines, everyone ends up saving money.

Heating pumps
Smart and efficient heating pumps can help tackle exploding energy costsImage: DW

Carrot and stick approach

In contrast, Thomas says Germany approaches energy efficiency too inconsistently. Each year, about one percent of all houses are modernized, but the rate of efficiency makeovers needs to double to meet EU savings targets. Many say that the German government needs to play a bigger role.

"You need a carrot and stick approach as well as drum up support for such measures," Thomas said.

That includes incentives for consumers to make long term investments, mandatory efficiency criteria in public building and transport projects and more transparency and information for end users.

Information plays important role

Information is key to saving energy, as was demonstrated in Japan after the Fukushima nuclear crisis last year. The tragedy led to almost all the country's nuclear reactors taken offline.

In March this year, only 2 of 52 reactors were operating. But that still didn't lead to power cuts in Japan. The reason was a national campaign to save energy.

Lights in offices and homes were voluntarily switched off, efficient LED lamps were installed and household air conditioning was massively scaled back.

Experts say around 20 percent of electricity could be saved through such simple measures in offices, industries, schools and homes.

Author: Gero Reuter /sp
Editor: Nathan Witkop

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