Why Saving Energy is So Hard


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When most people think about energy, they see big power plants and smokestacks. What people generally do not consider is that it is much cheaper and more environmentally friendly to cut energy use than it is to build new power plants.  

The problem is that saving energy is not simple. It requires changing deep-rooted behavior.

So, how can we encourage energy efficiency? Although it has always been a component of smart energy policy and economic development, recent concerns about securing sufficient energy resources to sustain growth (coupled with heightened concerns about energy prices and the environment) have made the issue front and center in many countries.

Historically, the Western Balkans (our focus group for the purpose of this post) have been very energy intensive – meaning they use more units of energy for maintaining their economies than other countries do. Because the winters can be harsh in this region, heating needs are substantial. Buildings – from multifamily apartment buildings to schools and shopping malls – account for about 40% of the energy needs and provide a huge opportunity to save energy.

A big challenge in changing consumer behavior and improving the efficiency of energy use lies in how energy is sold in these countries. Under the Soviet system they inherited, customers have traditionally paid for the heating of their homes based on how big their apartments are – not by how much heat they use. Many of these customers also have no way to control the temperature in their own apartments so they open windows to adjust the temperature! This leads to significant energy waste and electricity systems that can’t sustain themselves financially.  

The World Bank is working on energy efficiency with governments in Balkan countries such as Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro. In many cases, this means shifting from the old system to a more modern one. It also requires substantial investments, public awareness-raising, social safety nets for price increases and, above all else, political commitment. Political will can be particularly difficult – no one has ever won by campaigning for higher energy prices. 

At a recent workshop in Vienna on energy efficiency in buildings, we discussed potential investments estimated at 3.6 billion Euros to renovate the building stock in these countries – but this would result in energy savings of 500 million Euros each year.

Most people agree that energy efficiency is a good thing, but people generally overlook simple measures like re-caulking their windows, unplugging large appliances when they’re not being used, or putting a rug or carpet on the floor.

When I had my air conditioning unit replaced in my house in northern Virginia, I asked the technician about the most efficient model.  He said it was a SEER 19 (an energy efficiency rating, with a higher number being more efficient) but he advised against it saying that spare parts were not always available and some technicians didn’t know how to fix them.  It was also more expensive than a standard model.

I knew the investment would pay off so I paid the premium for a more efficient appliance, but it was easy to see why many people would have selected the the conventional model. This is an example to illustrate that consumers—through their own awareness-raising efforts—can choose more energy-efficient solutions that will also save them money over the long-term.

Progress toward energy efficiency is going to require us all to think long-term – politicians and consumers. Unless we all start thinking differently about how we use energy, we may be staring at more smokestacks in the years to come.



Jas Singh

Senior Energy Efficiency Specialist

Join the Conversation

Jas Singh
February 12, 2013

Dear Millie,Thank you for your comment and information on the interesting project you are implementing. In the area of energy efficiency in buildings, the World Bank is supporting the Government of Montenegro's energy efficiency projects in public buildings in the health and education sectors, though the Montenegro Energy Efficiency Project. Also, the World Bank is launching a regional study in six Western Balkan countries on ways to scale up energy efficiency in buildings.As part of its energy efficiency action plan, the Montenegrin Government is looking into ways to promote energy efficiency in private housing as well (for more information visit the web site: www.energetska-efikasnost.me, projects MONTESOL and SOLARNI KATUNI), and I am sure they would be interested in hearing more about your project and discuss ideas to move it forward. We would suggest you contact the Ministry of Economy and its department for energy efficiency.  We are also aware that the EBRD is providing a credit line through local Montenegrin banks that is available for private home owners as well. On this you would want to discuss with the local EBRD office.If you would like to learn a bit more about the Montenegro Energy Efficiency Project you may check out a short video on the project at http://go.worldbank.org/SUFVM5JPM0 or contact the project coordinator Biljana Maslac in the Ministry of Economy or the World Bank project team leader, Jari Vayrynen (jvayrynen at worldbank dot org).

February 11, 2013

Jas, interesting post! I work for UNDP in Montenegro, and energy is one of the core issues we're working on with the government. You nicely explained the main issues facing the governments in the region and i tend to agree that the progress is likely to take place through small, incremental steps that may emerge into bigger changes...

We're working on a project that may be of interest, where we use energy efficiency measure to create financial space for households to legalize their homes (there are some 100,000 illegal settlements in Montenegro, and if distributed evenly every other household lives in an illegal home- there are a number of reasons for why homes are not formalized yet). This infographic (http://visual.ly/green-future-montenegro) explains the model we propose, and we just ran a prototype with few households in the northern Montenegro and got a proof of concept: 63% energy savings with the basic energy efficiency measures that is sufficient to pay for both the cost of formalization and the cost of energy efficiency measures.

We're looking to scale up the prototype to municipal and national level with the Government, if you can think of partners we could engage of this (it's a bankable project, we may need some grant funding to get it off the ground but overall fully bankable), let us know?
Many thanks