As consumers become ever more vigilant about energy efficiency the road towards a clean energy grid will be easier to navigate, Professor Stuart White of the Institute for Sustainable Futures tells EcoGeneration.

Sometimes it feels like everyone is so excited about making new power that they forget about the power they already have. Clean energy sources must eventually replace polluting ones, yes, but if electricity is used more efficiently the consumer and the environment are better off no matter how supply is generated.

Any ease in aggregate energy demand that results from raised awareness about the benefits of using as little electricity as possible can become a generation source in itself, saving the game when peak load events threaten everyone’s fun.

This “fifth fuel” can also work hand-in-glove with intermittent renewable energy sources, to smooth out the bumps in supply as wind and solar slowly but inevitably fill the grid.

The energy we don’t use can be a powerful force.

“We need to pay attention to energy productivity otherwise we’re not going to realise the full potential of [renewable energy sources],” says Professor Stuart White, director of the Institute for Sustainable Futures, which operates within the University of Technology Sydney.

The message about energy efficiency is finally getting through, however, and White came back from presenting at the ARENA parliamentary summit in Canberra in mid-August with a lift in his step. “We have absolutely turned a corner,” he says.

Trilemma to trifecta

The energy trilemma – increased energy costs, increased emissions and reduced reliability – has been seen as a bit of a whack-a-mole game, White says, where pushing one down only encourages one of the others to rise. But research at the Institute of Sustainable Futures has shown it’s not the case, he says. “We can move to an energy trifecta where all of these problems can be solved simultaneously.”

Professor Stuart White, a director at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, which operates within the University of Technology, Sydney.

Anyone who pays a power bill needs to know there is a shopping list of solutions: energy efficiency is the fastest, cheapest and largest source of decreased emissions; storage is a disruptive game-changer; and AEMO and ARENA’s crusade to find 100MW of “good old-fashioned” demand side response before summer will shake large energy users into action. “We’re already starting to see some movement in that space, and it’s long overdue,” he says.

Batteries will play an important role in helping consumers use energy efficiently, as will distributed generation, demand side response and peak demand management. “Demand side response will be the cheapest way we can solve the reliability problem,” White says, and energy efficiency is the cheapest way to solve the emissions problem.

Time to double down

Research by Chris Dunstan at the Institute for Sustainable Futures shows that since the last recession the economy has grown 108% but energy has only grown 46%. “In other words, we’ve already broken that rule which was iron-clad in the past that energy and GNP just continued together,” White says.

Over that period energy productivity growth has become the largest single contributor to supplying the energy we need. It’s a good result, but it’s really only just the start. “There is so much more potential in the economy,” White says. The government is committed to a 40% improvement in energy productivity relative to 2015 and the Australian Alliance for Energy Productivity (a group of business, government and environmental leaders which includes White among its members) has a goal of doubling energy productivity by 2030.

A 100% increase in energy productivity sounds like a lofty aspiration, but White says it can “absolutely” be done. Just look at lighting, he says, where on a lumens-per-watt basis technology has improved by a factor of more than 10 as LED technology has replaced incandescent bulbs.

White recalls his days conducting energy audits where it was standard in commercial buildings to find 20-30% energy reductions with a payback between two and three years. He suspects it’s the same today, where ever smarter technology and ever higher energy costs make it possible to squeeze efficiencies out of operations even in modern premises. “Doubling energy productivity is not at all an ambitious goal,” he says.

Power in numbers

A real driver for change will be the importance of data in slowly awakening consumers to the possibilities of cutting consumption and saving money. We have not been very good at understanding energy use and energy production, White says, and the next stage is to understand how people use energy and to empower consumers to do more to control energy use through data. He cites US companies Opower and Green Button as tapping huge opportunities in showing consumers how to optimise energy use, and he suggests Google or Apple could be “the next utility”. “They’re the ones who know where the power really is in terms of the next evolution of some of these things,” he says. “We think it’s one of the next revolutionary [areas for energy efficiency].”

Data won’t complain when you tell it to work hard, but putting it to use as a tool to empower consumers will rely on the initiative of start-ups and entrepreneurs, he says, as systems are designed whereby multiple devices can be controlled to ensure low, low energy use. No consumer alone will have much of a chance of working that out for themselves. And once you add in an electric vehicle, with its own little power source under the bonnet, the next layer of complexity is around how all of the “things” in your life can be made to communicate with one another.

In the commercial and industrial realm the potential for savings is vast, he says. The Australian Alliance of Energy Productivity is looking at how to improve energy productivity in the food value chain, where refrigeration, known as the cold chain, is the most valuable component. “There are huge opportunities for improving the technology and systems to reduce food wastage and improve energy efficiency,” White says. One of the solutions is to enable the internet of things to determine temperature, as the risk associated with losing the integrity of the cold chain far outweighs the energy costs. Data is an “extremely important enabling factor” in solving that little problem, he says.

Work in progress

Innovation is important, but to get anywhere institutional barriers to energy productivity must be removed, more research and development is needed and investors need to see the value in understanding the role of energy productivity in the integration of renewables.

In the meantime there’s a lot of work to be done. White is working on a scoping study with ARENA, the Australian Alliance of Energy Productivity and ClimateWorks Australia which is looking at: light vehicle fleets (to combat a persistent reliance on oil); heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (as gargantuan energy-suckers), and; the value chain (including the food supply chain, already mentioned).

“We’re looking at what it is that can be done to immediately get best leverage in terms of investment in [research, development and demonstration],” he says. “How can we use decentralised energy solutions to help integrate with renewables and help integrate with energy efficiency and demand-side response. To find a sweet spot where you can improve the performance of renewables, reduce the cost of renewables … better match supply and demand.”

The institutional barriers are often the most significant ones, he says, and they must be identified and overcome. “This is absolutely crucial.” Colleague Chris Dunstan is looking at how network augmentation is biased against demand management, and work is being done to provide incentives for networks to do demand management actively themselves.

It will be a blessed relief, he says, if networks can one day profit from demand response as much they do from upgrades. Can it happen? Let’s wait and see.