Efficiency: The #2 Goal

We need to make an energy transition.  We are locked into using growing amounts of dirty fossil fuels in increasingly growing quantities.  The top solution for this is conservation (using less): unplug your electronic photo frame which costs $9/year to operate, don’t fly,turn down your thermostat.  That, however, is a hard sell – and most people don’t want to change their lifestyles.  So that leads us to #2 – efficient energy use.

An efficient system is one that gets more work out of the same (or lesser) amount of energy.  The perfect example of this is the compact fluorescent lightbulb.  Less electricity is used by the bulb, but more light comes out – because less is lost as heat.  (If you want to see energy lost as heat, just try to change an incandescent bulb with your bear hands – or play with an Easy Bake Oven, where the lightbulb makes the heat.)

Our world has been very inefficient about energy.  Oil and coal have been cheap, so no one has had any reason to spend a lot of money engineering new products.


We have a lot of room to gain efficiency with our cars.  The internal combustion is only about 10-25% efficient.  That means that out of every dollar you put into you are in gas, you only get out 25 cents worth of movement.  The rest is degraded into unusable forms of energy like heat, friction, and engine inefficiencies.

Image from Green Car Congress

Some of these problems are inexpensive to change – better tire design, lighter cars (of that 25%, most moves the car and less moves you). and aerodynamic designs.  American car and heavy equipment makers are working on advanced combustion and exhaust energy recovery.


Your home is an energy machine that is certainly running very inefficiently.  After you go through the house and figure out what you can unplug – the next step is to make it a more efficient machine.  (Best unplug – sorry – the beer fridge.)  Over half energy is used by heating and cooling (see below) and that is were most of the easiest fixes are.  You can do your own home energy audit, or pay someone else to do it.  Here are instructions.

Image from the US Dept. of Energy

Only after that should you look at the more expensive changes such as buying new equipment.  It’s not perfect, but the Energy Star labeling program is a good guide here.

The important thing to hold in mind here is that you are trying to get more work out of your existing systems for less money (or, if the system is really losing money, to replace it).  Often, people think that energy efficiency improvement always means buying expensive new items.  It doesn’t.  For the most part it means tinkering with what you already have.

An additional benefit of efficiency, is that since you use less energy for what you are already doing, you can continue existing energy use for high-value activities.  This lessens drastic changes that many foresee as part of our energy transition.  But only if we, as a society, create and enable these sustainability changes as soon as possible.

But remember: efficiency has to be #2.  Conservation – or reduction of use – has much better potential for all of us.

Image from Motifake