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Energy Efficiency: A Treacherous Concept

Energy Efficiency: A Treacherous Concept

We cannot deal with complex issues and problems as if they were much simpler than they really are. This problem is evident with the use of the concept of efficiency in policy discussions and in the definition of indicators. In fact, on a practical and conceptual level, efficiency is an ambiguous and problematic concept to implement in quantitative terms. Of particular concern is the lack of contextual and qualitative information provided in energy efficiency measurements based on simple ratios. This Uncomfortable Knowledge Hub (UKH) series consists of one teaser video and three video lectures reflecting on the conceptual and practical problems associated with the use of the concept of efficiency in the policy domain.

What is uncomfortable knowledge?

Uncomfortable knowledge is a concept introduced by Steve Rayner*. As Rayner puts it: “to make sense of the complexity of the world so that they can act, individuals and institutions need to develop simplified, self-consistent versions of that world”. The chosen, self-consistent narratives and explanations necessarily leave out some relevant aspects of the issue in order to remain simple and useful. In this situation “knowledge which is in tension or outright contradiction with those versions must be expunged. This is uncomfortable knowledge which is excluded from policy debates, especially when dealing with ‘wicked problems’”.

*Steve Rayner, 2012. Uncomfortable knowledge: the social construction of ignorance in science and environmental policy discourses. Economy and Society 41(1): 107-125.

What is quantitative storytelling?

Quantitative storytelling (QST), the systematic approach used to present material on the Uncomfortable Knowledge Hub, does not claim to present the “truth” about a given issue, nor that all the numbers used in the story are uncontested. When dealing with wicked issues, all numbers can always be calculated in a different way and narratives are always contested. QST simply presents alternative stories useful to check the quality of existing narratives and to enrich the diversity of insights about a given issue.


How should we measure efficiency? (1 min 57 sec)

How should we measure efficiency? Why are energy efficiency indicators always promoting new gadgets and devices affordable only by the wealthy, while sharing practices, which are normally enacted by the poor and that are equally or even more effective for energy conservation, are systematically ignored?  Choosing an indicator of energy efficiency is never neutral, and it generates “hypocognition” (the missing of other relevant aspects to be considered). These points are explained with clear and simple examples.

Indicators of efficiency are overly simplistic​ (16 min 40 sec)

Indicators of efficiency are overly simplistic. Equating increases in ‘efficiency’ (based on a definition of performance referring to just a single relevant attribute to be improved, among many others) with ‘sustainability improvements’ is misleading. In fact, the performance of complex systems can only be perceived and described using different levels of analysis and many dimensions of analysis. A simple output/input can only be defined at one given level and dimension at the time. This entails that indicators of efficiency generate “hypocognition” (the missing of relevant aspects of the issue dealt with in the analysis). Several examples are given to illustrate this point.

Indicators of efficiency are not useful in policy discussions​ (12 min 10 sec)

Indicators of efficiency are not useful in policy discussions. The analysis and the comparison of the performance of the economy of different countries based on simplistic definitions of efficiency should be avoided. One cannot compare efficiency in terms of the use of food of a very old lady, versus that of a young girl and versus that of a breastfeeding woman. When selecting indicators of performance, we cannot compare ‘apples’ and ‘oranges’. In order to characterize the performance of different economies, we have to be able to characterize their mix of production activities, their level of consumption, their level of openness (the terms of trade), the availability and quality of their resources, the goals of their society, etc. If we are not able to contextualize all these factors, the use of indicators dividing one number by another simply cannot generate meaningful information about the efficiency of an economy.

The Jevons Paradox: Why quantitative scenarios based on improvement in energy efficiency are useless​ (11 min 8 sec)

The Jevons Paradox—Why are quantitative scenarios based on improvement in energy efficiency useless? Complex adaptive systems are becoming in time and continuously adjusting to the changes imposed on them. For this reason, the more we increase the efficiency of the technology used by humans, the quicker the particular function expressed using that technology will become something else. This is a predicament that affects not only the validity of the policy based on efficiency (the results will be different from what was expected at the moment of the planning) but also the validity of the quantitative analysis (what has been modeled will no longer exist because of the implementation of the policy). A few simple examples show the relevance of these points.


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