Towards a definition of energy sufficiency

Energy sufficiency describes the situation where everyone has access to all the energy services they need and a fair share of the energy services they want whilst, at the same time, the impacts of the energy system do not exceed environmental limits. 

Energy sufficiency actions are changes we make to the way we use energy that bring us closer to this situation.  Encouraging sufficiency involves thinking about technologies, infrastructures and lifestyles.  

Technologies determine how much energy we use to meet our demands for energy services.  Energy efficiency policy has achieved a lot in driving the improvement of energy using technologies so that we now use far less to deliver the same level of service. But more efficient technologies can encourage us to use more, and this is where we need to go further with policy to ensure that demand is not excessive.

Example: refrigeration

Let’s take the example of refrigeration. European energy labelling and minimum efficiency standards have transformed the market for new fridges and freezers, making our food cooling very much more energy efficient. But we have not thought about encouraging people to buy a fridge that is the right size for their needs and no more. Energy labels and standards are based on energy use per m3– so a huge fridge that uses lots of energy may look as good as a small one that uses very little.  Labelling and standards based on the total energy use of an appliance would highlight to consumers how much more energy is used by larger models and may encourage them not to over-size.

Infrastructure can enable us to make more energy sufficient choices; it can also prevent us from doing so.  We often don’t think about infrastructure when we think about energy use, or indeed think about energy use when we think about infrastructure. The importance of non-energy policy decisions have only recently begun to be thought about. 

Let’s think about refrigeration again. The simplest example of how infrastructure affects our energy use here is the ‘infrastructure’ of fridge manufacture and sales: if we are offered, and indeed encouraged to buy, larger fridges with more features, it makes it easier for us to make the less energy sufficient choice; if the benefits of smaller fridges are sold to us, we might make a more energy sufficient choice.  But we also need to think more broadly here: we can live happily with a smaller fridge, but only if it ‘makes sense’ for us to shop frequently for fresh food.  The infrastructure needed for this to happen is a store selling the food we want at a price we are happy with on a route that we use every day.  If this does not exist, we are more likely to choose a pattern of shopping that requires greater cold storage space and hence a larger fridge. To influence this, we need to look beyond energy efficiency policy to land-use and urban planning policies and practices.

Lifestyles, those we live and those we aspire to, have a fundamental impact on energy use.  And there is very little that traditional energy efficiency policy can do to affect these beyond encouraging the simplest changes in habitual behaviours. 

Back to refrigeration again.  Some people cook all their food from largely unprocessed raw ingredients; some rely almost entirely on ready-meals.  Most of us are somewhere in between these two extremes. Whatever our choices and constraints around cooking, they will have implications for cold storage of food: reliance on ready meals may decrease the cold space we need at home, but increase the use of refrigeration in supermarkets; home cooks may make use of more freezer space to store spare portions of home cooked meals.  Of course, we are not suggesting that our choices of how to cook should be determined by what uses the least energy!  Or that energy policy should aim to affect these choices.  But understanding the energy implications of how we cook can inform the discussion about how our lifestyles affect the sufficiency of our energy system.

And this is where it becomes much less useful to think about only one type of energy use in isolation.  Cooking patterns affect energy use for cooling and heating food, and washing dishes in the home.  They also have impacts throughout the food production, distribution and sales supply chain, and on waste disposal.  These systemic issues, where lifestyles and infrastructures interact with energy use, require much more thought than has been possible within the boundaries of policy focusing specifically on energy efficiency.  Energy sufficiency is a framework within which such issues can be considered.

Not a new thing

But is this a new thing?  No, it is not; it is a step beyond where energy efficiency has taken us, but it is possible.  Indeed, there are many examples of energy sufficiency actions that are already happening – some of them very traditional (Neapolitan families drying their washing on lines strung from building to building) and some of them are very new (the Malmo bicycle hotel).

This website is part of a project exploring the idea of energy sufficiency in more detail, with the aim of explaining to policy makers how we can go beyond energy efficiency policy to encourage greater energy sufficiency.  The project looks at elements of energy use (such as energy use in products or in buildings) and it also looks at the broader issues, exploring how we can characterise and examine energy sufficiency, for example, or how the rebound problem can be viewed through an energy sufficiency lens.

This is only the start of the energy sufficiency discussion, but we hope that it will spark new ideas and also offer some clear proposals for policy makers that can move us beyond energy efficiency and towards energy sufficiency.

Download from the library

Energy sufficiency: An introduction (an eceee concept paper)