Clean Energy Doing Better Than Expected – But Don’t Relax

decarbonizing involves moving away from internal combustion engines

If you have ever thought that your contribution in energy efficiency or renewables to the switch away from fossil fuels hasn’t made much of a difference, three graphs I’ve seen recently would show otherwise.

Energy Efficiency

Energy efficiency, the “quiet achiever” in the clean energy space, has kept energy consumption down, well below expectations, over the last 4 decades.  The graph below shows how forecasts made in the late 1970s and in 2005, of energy consumption in the USA, have estimated forward energy use to be much higher than it has actually been.

energy efficiency has kept energy consumption below forecasts
From Green Tech Media

This pattern would be similar across many countries. A key contributor to keeping energy use down and capping carbon emissions has been “systemic” energy efficiency driven by energy efficiency standards. Such as building codes, vehicle mileage standards, equipment and appliance standards. Almost everything that uses energy has gradually improved to produce more while using less energy. The domestic refrigerator being the classic example.

Appliance energy efficiency standards save energy
Appliance energy efficiency standards save energy

Renewable Energy

Renewables, particularly wind and solar, have greatly exceeded expectations in terms of price and performance, and thus capacity installed. The best example being solar PV, just look at the chart from the tweet below! The renewables sector is exciting and dynamic, and will continue to be so as it contributes more and more to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

(As seen at Green Car Reports)


Looking forward the oil industry is expecting oil consumption to continue to grow. But the graph below projects otherwise, showing how energy efficiency, electric vehicles and fuel switching might be expected to reduce oil demand. Click on the image to see the Bloomberg article with full graph and its axis.

Projected oil consumption to 2040
Oil projections through to 2040. From Bloomberg. Click to view detail.

Clean Energy Doing Better than Expected

These three graphs show that the contribution of those working in energy efficiency and renewable energy both in the past, and looking forward, has been under-estimated. Clean energy has been doing better than expected. The contribution of the hundreds of thousands of clean energy professionals around the world is making a difference!

But Don’t Relax!

Take a closer look at that graph on oil demand and you’ll notice that the y axis starts well above zero. It projects oil use in 2040 still being 73 millions of barrels – per day! Around about the same as in 2000, and less than 25% below the expected peak in 2020.

Similarly the first graph, on energy efficiency, has a misleading y-axis. And the administration in the US is now attacking energy efficiency at a systemic level, by seeking to roll back energy efficiency standards. Other countries have long followed the US, particularly around equipment and appliance energy efficiency standards. They now need to forge their own path.

There seems to be widespread agreement that by 2050 it is feasible and practical to reduce global carbon emissions to net zero. But project forward the oil chart and it can be seen that, despite recent achievements, we are off target.

Clean energy has saved more emissions than expected, but achieving zero net emissions remains a huge challenge.

decarbonizing involves moving away from internal combustion engines
One of the challenges will be moving away from internal combustion engines

From the perspective of energy supply and demand some of the key challenges going forward are:

  • Managing the intermittent supply of wind and solar PV.
  • Moving internal combustion engines off the road.
  • Hydrocarbon free air travel, which requires a very high power to weight ratio.
  • Moving away from the combustion of gas (natural gas, propane) used widely in industry and to heat buildings.
  • Managing “clunkers” that have long lifetimes, such as inefficient buildings.
  • Lack of policy consistency and strength, driven by climate skepticism. Its appalling that this still exists, after most countries ratified the UNFCCC over 20 years ago back in 1996.
old buildings and old equipment is energy inefficient. Replacement or upgrades are expensive, posing a challenge to decarbonization
Example of a clunker – a 40 to 50 year old boiler still in use

These are BIG challenges. Requiring Leadership. Innovation. Persistence. Engineering. Science. Skills. Finance. Determination.

The Dumpster Home, Innovation and Green Building Careers

Homes tend to have a lot of embodied energy or embodied carbon emissions, arising from the energy used in the manufacture of the construction materials, such as bricks, and the energy used in transporting these materials and in actually assembling and building the home.  The figures will vary depending on construction techniques and location, but could typically be around 0.5 to 1 tonne of embedded carbon per square meter (around 10 square feet), representing very roughly 15 years of operational energy consumption  (1).

In general, the smaller the home, the lower the embodied energy and carbon in it. Additionally smaller homes require less energy to heat, cool and illuminate. As do work spaces that make efficient use of their space.

But making a home small, really small, down to around 20% of the size of a typical 2 storey suburban house, and comfortable is a design challenge. The Kasita home is a recent attempt to do this, and it all started in a dumpster, as shown in this CNBC video:

The design and construction of low embodied energy buildings such as the Kasita requires a range of skills, many of which are not usually associated with construction.

And as construction industry jobs are lost with automation, this could also mean changes in some construction related clean energy jobs, as shown in the Construction Robotics video below. For example, the integration of PV into roofing materials could mean that for a new home PV installers no longer install panels, all they do is the electrical connection.

For those working in Green Buildings it’s an exciting time, but also a time not to be complacent.

California and the EU are leading with their requirements for new homes to be net zero energy from 2020 (2), and then to extend the home requirements into commercial buildings in following years. This is going to require upskilling of the construction industry to deliver this, both in design, and in actual construction. In fact this upskilling has been happening gradually for some time, but it now needs to accelerate. And whilst for now zero net home energy requirements are looming for only the EU and California (combined population of 550m) in much of the rest of the world those countries with existing energy standards for buildings are likely to tighten them, whilst emerging economies without standards are increasingly likely to adopt energy performance standards for buildings. This is certainly going to grow the green building sector.

On the other hand the green building industry is coming historically from a place where it is at the high end of pricing. Most existing green commercial buildings are large and operate in the premium end of the market, with governments and large corporations occupying them. Those who have been in the green building sector for some time may find it hard to win contracts, but when they do the pay-off is good. As we move to a situation where every building – small to large – if not “green” is at least substantially “greener”, there may be more contracts, but margins are likely to continue to tighten, and expectations will be higher. The market will grow. New people will come into it, unconstrained by traditional thinking. Disruption and innovation will happen.

To thrive going forward requires those working in the green building space to delivery more for less, to tap into technological developments elsewhere and to innovate (like the Kasita house has done). Complacency is not acceptable. And if you are a disruptor and innovator and maybe looking for a new career, perhaps green buildings are for you.

Bruce Rowse

1. Its difficult to pin down the “average” embodied energy / embodied carbon in a home. 0.5 to 1 tonne/m2 could be considered an extremely rough estimate, See and

2. California’s target is for all residential buildings to use zero net energy by 2020, and all commercial buildings to use zero net energy by 2030.  In the EU, 28 countries have committed to new residential buildings being “near zero energy” from 31 December 2020. The directive 2010/31/EU also requires that after 31 December 2018 new public buildings are nearly zero energy.

About the Clean Energy Academy

The Clean Energy Academy provides a range of courses on green buildings. See

Featured course: Passive House Design. Homes designed to Passive House (Passive Haus) standards have a low demand for space heating and cooling, have low overall energy use, must be extremely air tight, and be thermally comfortable. In this Passive House Design Course you’ll learn how to design a house that meets the Passive House requirements and as a project will be designing a home that meets the Passive House space heating and primary energy requirements. This Passive House Design training consistently attracts high student ratings and may be taken at any time.

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