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Energy transition: is there such thing as a citizen consumer?

Energy transition is the changeover from an economy based on high consumption of fossil fuel sources to a more ecology-intensive society. In practical terms, an energy transition policy must provide for energy-saving, optimized generation systems and make more use of renewable or carbon-free sources. The objective is to move to a reasoned energy model that can ensure sustainable supplies, in a fair and safe way, sufficient to meet the needs of an advanced economy. Public authorities will play an important role, inasmuch as the rise in the fraction of renewable energies and improvement of thermal insulation standards for housing are both long-term processes. But private persons, either singly or collectively, will also have their role. Defining the latter, however - and measuring the initiatives taken at their level - turns out to be a highly complex process. The question remains: can the end-consumers really make a decisive difference?

June 2015
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Executive Resume

According to the figures published in the IEA Blue Map scenario, global CO2 emissions for 2005 stood at 28 G tonne (billion tonnes), a figure that should drop to 14 G tonne by 2050. The International Energy Agency proposes – given that if we pursue the current CO2 growth trend, we shall reach the figure of 60 Gtonnes – that the necessary savings efforts be redistributed: 38% gained through energy efficiency measures (reducing energy consumption for transportation, in the residential sector, electric power stations, etc.); 17% through renewable energy sources coming on line; 6% from improved technology in the nuclear energy sector; 19% via carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) and 20% via other arrangements and improvements.

It is mainly via energy efficiency/savings measures and efforts that end-consumers can be associated. In most developed countries, the first two CO2 producers are transport systems and the residential sector (emissions from fuel combustion for heating/cooking and garden machinery).

In France, for example, out of a national total of approximately 375 M tonnes of CO2 emitted every year, transport systems account for 130 M tonnes while homes and service sector premises account for nearly 90 M tonnes. In the latter, there is a wide variety of consumer categories: private cars which account for one half of the emissions due to transportation, whereas the building sector emits an even higher fraction. The aggregate consumption of private individuals is consequently far from insignificant, all the more when we consider that an almost equivalent amount (in developed countries) must be added to direct emissions, coming from product manufacturing, transport and from associate service sector energy consumption.


In this context, the decisions private persons make certainly have an impact. We frequently speak about “eco-gestures,” small civic attentions to daily matters to save on energy utilization and spending: e.g., switching off equipment on stand-by mode completely, taking food from a fridge earlier, not letting domestic tap-water run more than needed. Do small gestures like these have an impact? It is not really clear because the power and other utility bills do not necessary show the savings made.

Let us look at the case of urban water. We can see that in a consumption context with a constant upwards trend of the cost of distribution net maintenance, a slight decrease in consumption led the suppliers to raise the sales price of the m3 supplied. Network energies (gas and electricity primarily) follow the same logic. Of course, the unit price rise constitutes an extra incentive to consume less, but the consumers are under the impression that their efforts have no measurable effect and therefore tend to be demotivated.

Another approach is to avoid encouraging customers from consuming. An ambition discouragement policy could change what we might see as an inconsiderate use of private cars. A very serious study conducted by Andrea Hamre and Ralph Buehler, research scientists at Virginia Tech, quantified the effect of ending free parking perks for employees commuting to work in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. The study, quoted in CityLab (Aug.1, 2014), clearly demonstrated how the free parking policy neutralizes any policies that encourage alternative transportation modes (walking, cycling, using public transport to go to work).

Here we gain an insight to part of the equation. To simplify, there is no point in appealing to people’s good will (or in reverse, stigmatizing them) to induced them to change their behavior, but it may work if we propose a framework that orients their behavioral patterns.

In a democracy, the options available are not all that abundant. If political policy-makers can occasionally pursue a punitive approach vis-à-vis certain energy-intensive industrialists, the endless squabbling in relation to the carbon tax is there to remind us that they have less room to maneuver when it comes to influencing their electorate.

Notwithstanding, they can integrate some difficult decisions in a cause to which everyone adheres. Thus, in Western Europe, it was with the aim of facing the aftermath of the oil crises and in a context presented as justifying emergency measures, that most countries adopted the first reduced speed limits for road traffic, in the 1970s. Today the argument of lower fuel consumption is not absent from decisions taken to reduce speed limits here and there even further but the prime pitch is now to improve road safety statistics.

It proves easier to propose citizen encouragement policies to electors. For example, one little known aspect of the German federal ‘Energiewende’ is the very high fiscal rebate offered to those who agree to improve the insulation cladding of their homes.

A significant subsidy, extended over several years, leads to a chain reaction: a market is created and increasingly massive use of a technology lowers the product prices. Both the objects and the materials used to improve energy efficiency are less costly as they are more extensively disseminated – it’s a simple question of scale. The aim of the Government then is to accelerate the dissemination and to offer an extra incentive to early adopters. It also helps national champions to emerge in the field.

But these public policies are difficult to manage. A well-documented example is that of solar energy in Germany. The objectives were to develop a national industry as well as to reshape  energy consumption. But with the gift-horse approach to consumers and solar panel arrays mainly imported from China, the policy did not meet its objectives. Although German households did equip their homes, the bill turned out to higher than expected and the German champions dit not make it. Another example is provided by the policy conducted in Norway to develop all-electric vehicles, that has been victim to its success. In 2014, the cost of tax exemptions exceeded official planning by more than 20% - representing billions of Norwegian crowns which, in fact, accrued to the Californian economy (Tesla) and Japanese industries (Nissan, Toyota). Besides, some advocates wishing to save the environment remind us that even though the energy they consume were almost exclusively from hydro-electric sources, “clean” vehicles nonetheless still require the same amounts of raw materials, the extraction of which per se consumes energy and potentially damages the natural environment.

Incentive policies can be demonstrably efficient but they have side-effects that are not fully under control. We can also consider that they are only part of the path. Consumers are at the end of the chain and, while activating a demand can have a noteworthy effect, this does not really change the situation.

Energy efficiency as described here consists, in essence, of optimizing our consumption without changing our life-style. A new and more ambitious doctrine is now making progress, energy-lean, or energy conservation strategies. Citizens are closely associate with the policy, but it is not their modest, personal gestures or intelligently motivated shopping that are targeted.

Changing paradigm

An energy conservation strategy points to a real change in paradigm, calling for the adoption of a less energy-intensive life-style. The lean principle strategy for which, incidentally, there is no official definition, consists of drastically reducing those needs that require energy consumption. It can take several forms.

For example, there can be energy conservation in our strategy of uses, which tend to reduce the use (in time or quantity) of goods or services, and consequently lower the associate energy consumption. The principle recommends, for example, that commuting to and from work places should be reduced, through teleworking, for instance.

A dimensional energy lean strategy commends that we purchase equipment best suited to our final needs. For a private person, this implies choosing a family car as a function of the main intended use and not in terms of dreamy, potential features. If driving come down to taking the kids to school by car, there is no point in doing so with an SUV weighing several tonnes!

A co-operative lean strategy implies sharing equipment. To meet exceptional mobility needs, the person, if need be, could rent a larger vehicle via a car-share service, or a classic current car rental company, or perhaps also via an Internet site offering this as an exchange ‘peer-to-peer’ service.

This doctrine of lean energy strategies, flirting as it does with the highly controversial issue of negative growth, raises strong opposition, both on the grounds of rights to individual freedom, more comfort and to continued economic expansion. Besides, some economists point out that there is a lack of realism in this doctrine: the very way it is portrayed, most often, would convince only a handful of passionate militants in the Western world.

But such levels of reticence could well fade away if the principle of energy conservation were to be incorporated – rather than take the form of coercive regulations or presented in idealistic terms, with a “responsible consumer” model – in products and services as of their design stage, whether it be a building, a vehicle, a mobile phone or a form of transportation. If we examine the example provided by mobile terminals – phones, computers, pads – and suppose that they were designed from the start so that when they become useless, it were an easier process to recycle their components, the damage incurred by the environment would be considerably reduced, ensuring simultaneously that some rare materials are not discarded as end-waste.

There are limits to the efforts that citizens are prepared to provide in defense of the environment. A study undertaken by Penn State University shows that even the most motivated citizens balk at the idea of purchasing re-manufactured goods, i.e., assembled from parts that had already been used in previous products. In more general terms, consumer habits act as brakes, notably in the most advanced societies who have become accustomed to a certain level of comfort. As François Moisan (Ademe) said in an interview with ParisTech Reviewwe cannot really imagine inviting homeowners to set their thermostats at 17° to save the planet” but, as he added, “At a more subtle level we can suggest less intrusive methods. Few would complain about taking a staircase in place of an elevator when walking down a single flight of stairs … yet architects have a role to play here in designing well-adapted environments where the stairs can be easily found and are easy to use! Energy efficiency will rely as much on changing behavior and introducing the idea of collective responsibility as it will on designers creating habitats that both encourage and provide the opportunity for new attitudes to emerge. Evidence also suggests that localized solutions often meet with far more success than broad legislation when it comes to changing behavior.”

Energy sobriety aims at a change of life-style. If the latter cannot be regulated, it can be reorganized, transformed. It cannot be the fruit of a State-down, one-to-one incentive or coercive rapport with the citizen-consumer-tax payer; the secret lies in in a collective learning process.

Technological innovation needs to be irrigated by social innovation, i.e., through experimentation that mobilizes groups of inhabitants or salaried personnel – men and women who not only see fit to let their uses evolves together, but whose interest it is, indeed, to do so and who are capable of bringing their collective intelligence to bear on this objective.

Collective learning goes hand in hand, so to speak, with development of a supply-side offer. But when it comes to energy consumption questions, we cannot simply rely on the market’s imaginative powers, even when entrepreneurs like Elon Musk wish to radically change the world. Technological innovation is not enough on its own. For gains obtained in through innovative applications are partly offset by concomitant losses. This is the boomerang effect. When the price for a product, or a service or a food-stuff drops, the incentive to be economical tends to fade away. The more a given technology become economical, the more its use will be amplified.

(To be continued here: "United we (could) stand.")