Response: Writing the wrongs of energy efficiency

A response to Jan Rosenow and Tina Fawcett’s Commentary: ‘What is right with energy efficiency?’

Elizabeth Shove, December 2017

In writing about what’s wrong with energy efficiency my aim was to bring a body of established social theoretical ideas to bear on a concept that has taken hold – and become taken for granted – in energy research and policy.  I wanted to do this in order to provoke considered reflection on the conceptual foundations of the very idea of energy efficiency.

This is an unusual undertaking and misunderstandings are to be expected.  Some are a product of the very issue that I seek to address:  that is the extent to which certain lines of thought have become so institutionalised and so ‘normal’ that there is no space left for critical reflection. Other potential hiccups relate to the fact that I am approaching the topic as a social scientist – and what’s worse, as one interested in the philosophy of knowledge, and in the performativity of discourses, ideas and practices.  This is not at all the same position as that occupied by readers who are in the business of ‘doing efficiency’, or energy policy, or who have no background in the ideas on which I draw.

That is not a problem. It is my job, in writing the article, to convey enough of these intellectual traditions to enable people immersed in the field of ‘energy efficiency’ to see what they are caught up in.  There are some signs that my article has had this effect.  For instance, Gerrit Jan Schaeffer, Director of Dutch Solar Energy thanks me for taking the effort to think through the concept of energy efficiency ‘in a thoroughly intellectual way’ (a tweet on 6th September 2017). Others  have acknowledged the importance of articulating some of the social, historical and political assumptions that are embedded in ‘efficiency’ as it is mobilised in contemporary policy. But for Jan Rosenow, for Tina Fawcett, and quite likely for other readers too, I have evidently not got through.  I am not about to repeat my entire argument (so please read this response alongside the original article), but their  reaction is a useful diagnostic tool, signalling what I take to be four main ‘error messages’.  In responding to these alerts my aim is to counter readings of the article that remain rooted within the ‘efficiency paradigm’.

Error message 1. The article is about whether energy efficiency ‘works’ in its own terms or not. 

In their response, Rosenow and Fawcett include a graph that they use to demonstrate the value of energy efficiency. There are, of course, many other such graphs that show the same.  My question is not whether the figures on which these graphs depend are right or wrong.  Instead, and as my extensive discussion of the ‘purifying’ work involved shows,  my aim is to  highlight the taken-for-granted assumptions and the work on which all such data is based.  Presenting evidence that demonstrates the benefits of energy efficiency, in its own terms, is in no way a counter claim, or a rebuttal of my position.  If anything it serves to illustrate just how deeply embedded and how uncritical efficiency discourses have become.

Error message 2. The discussion is about whether efficiency measures, and other energy policies, can combine to combat climate change. 

Quite early on in the article I make reference to some of those who claim that an effective response to climate change – including meeting future targets – is not only about finding more efficient ways of meeting present ‘needs’: as Obama said in 2016, ‘more will be needed’. In the UK, the Committee on Climate Change is also not sure how future targets will be met without the government applying ‘more challenging measures’, perhaps calling present standards of living into question. Rosenow and Fawcett want  ‘evidence’ that efficiency measures (alongside other technical fixes) might not be up to the task ahead.  In reality it is impossible to know how future ‘demands’ might evolve and what new ways people might be using energy in two or ten or a thousand years’ time.  Accordingly there can never be ‘evidence’ to show that efficiency will be enough, or to show the reverse either.

This is not where the argument lies. Instead, and as I sought to explain, the much more important point is to recognise that societal needs and demands are not given: they are negotiable, dynamic, and in part constituted by technologies and policies, including those of efficiency.  In this more metaphorical sense, efficiency arguments are not enough because they disguise and do not engage with the ways in which present and future demands are made, or that efficiency measures are themselves a crucial part of this process.  In other words, the potential to respond to climate change depends on what energy is used for and how societal ‘needs’ evolve. My case is that the pursuit of energy efficiency has many unintended consequences, within and as part of this story.

Error message 3. There are societally or universally agreed needs and demands and energy efficient systems and technologies help meet these needs with fewer resources.

I completely agree that efficiency measures  help meet pre-specified needs with fewer resources.  But in taking ‘needed’ services for granted such measures also ‘fix’ historically and culturally specific interpretations of comfort, light, travel, etc.  For a time, and for certain groups of people, these interpretations constitute ‘real’ needs.  But as most historians would explain, these are not universal,  nor are they always agreed.  The error is to suppose that there are societally or universally agreed needs.  In response, my article is designed to help proponents and defenders of efficiency discourses see just how much political and cultural baggage is attached to the seemingly neutral concepts with which they work.

Error message 4. In being critical of efficiency discourses I am at risk of raising politically awkward questions and inadvertently lending support to those in favour of boosting energy supply.

In the article I imply that discourses of efficiency are politically convenient because they disguise their own highly political role in sustaining specific interpretations of need and service.  On this point  I do want to rock the boat.   One reason for writing the article was to draw attention to just these hidden features.  I think this is important in that identifying what I call ‘good’ forms of efficiency depends on carefully articulating the meanings of ‘need’ and service that they sustain.  And as I argue, concepts of purification and entanglement help in this endeavour.   In my view, engaging with what is wrong with discourses of efficiency is a necessary step in working towards a more considered response to climate change: it is not a sign of weakness.  Far from it. Being critical of the intellectual foundations of policy discourses of efficiency – or for that matter of other related concepts like the energy ‘trilemma’ – is part of a necessary process of conceptualising and interrogating the dark sides of conventional wisdom.

To reiterate, the article is not about  whether efficiency should get more attention in policy spheres than additional supply.  The question is what commitments and assumptions do discourses of efficiency entail, and what perverse, unwitting and unintended effects might these have?  In particular, how do references to efficiency reproduce specific interpretations of ‘service’?

Rosenow and Fawcett’s discussion of ‘what’s right with energy efficiency’ represents a simple defence of the ambition of energy efficiency and because it remains at this level it does not offer a theoretically informed critique of ‘what’s wrong with energy efficiency’.  This is a shame in that there is plenty of scope for taking issue with various features of the argument that I make.   For example, a more interesting charge, and one that political scientists might reasonably make, is that I am myself beguiled by the dominant discourse of energy efficiency and have made the mistake of taking it at face value.  In other words, I fail to reference some pretty basic ideas about the rhetoric of policy making and politics and fail to recognise that concepts of efficiency are significant not in their own right but as a symptom of much bigger and deeper political and economic battles.

Another credible challenge is that I confuse or at least conflate ‘real’ forms of efficiency (based in physics and engineering) with the very much fuzzier versions that abound in policy documents.  For example, some purist engineers agree with aspects of my position, feeling that the notion of ‘efficiency’ has been repeatedly hijacked and misused in policy circles in which it is taken to be a generalised ambition, not a context specific measure of input and output.  My mistake is to treat ‘efficiency’ discourses as one.

Third, and for those who know the literature, my attempt to apply and work with notions of purification and entanglement skates over some rather important differences between Hodder and Latour. Similarly, I do not really engage with Hodder’s ideas about the path-dependence and directionality of entanglement.  This is quite significant, especially when dealing with long term issues like those of climate change.

Others might reasonably take me to task over the somewhat slippery solution of distinguishing between good and bad forms of efficiency, and they might press me on how notions of ‘good’ efficiency do or do not relate to debates about need and sufficiency.

I’ll resist the temptation to respond to these self-set challenges.  The point is not to resolve these questions now, but to show that there are important debates still to be had about the theoretical foundations of efficiency policy, and what these mean for  how questions of energy are measured, managed, understood and known. Sliding these topics under the carpet, insisting that efficiency ‘works’, and contending that it is politically important to defend efficiency programmes come what may is not a long term solution.

Further reading: Not everyone will be interested in  thinking about energy efficiency in these terms, but for those who are curious about how  scientific ideas and policy discourses  ‘work’ I’d suggest a few key readings.  One is The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas Kuhn, first published in 1962.  Another would be Don Mackenzie’s excellent book ‘Inventing accuracy’ (1990, MIT Press). Mackenzie writes about nuclear missiles but many of the ideas he explores apply as well to energy efficiency. A third suggestion would be to read more of Latour.  The book to which I refer in the article, Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern, (1993, Havard University Press) is not an easy starting point, but some of Latour’s earlier work, like Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts, with Steve Woolgar (1979, Sage) would be a good place to begin.


Elizabeth Shove is Professor of Sociology at Lancaster University and PI of the DEMAND research centre (Dynamics of energy, mobility and demand). She is known for her work on social practice theory, including The Dynamics of Social Practice (Sage 2012) with Mika Pantzar and Matt Watson, and more recently, Nexus of Practices (Routledge 2017) edited with Allison Hui and Theodore Schatzki.  She has also written about different aspects of energy and demand in everyday life.

ORCID number: 0000-0002-4792-5479

Policy instruments: designing an ‘optimal’ retrofit programme

Aaron Gillich provides an introduction to a recent paper co-authored with Minna Sunikka-Blank & Andy Ford in BRI.

The UK has long struggled to drive thermal retrofits in the able-to-pay sector.  Housing accounts for nearly a quarter of UK carbon emissions, and nearly every 2050 low carbon heat scenario used by policy makers is counting on a step change in energy efficiency in the existing stock.  In “Designing an ‘Optimal’ Retrofit Programme” we have argued that the core problem is failing to tackle this issue in a comprehensive way.  Instead the UK have largely relied on piecemeal solutions like financing (Green Deal), and failed to build on promising pilots such as described in the “Low Carbon Communities Challenge: Evaluation Report”.  These are effective ingredients, but not a complete foundation upon which to build a long term market as most policies seek to do.  More despairingly, the fact that these ingredients were not a panacea on their own has created an impression among many that: “well we tried that and it didn’t work.”  The UK’s effort at thermal retrofit is a story of half-measures and false starts.  Although many of the UK’s past efforts have been on the right track, they have suffered as partial solutions that weren’t seen through.

Insights from the Each Home Counts (Bonfield) review and bold ambitions of the Clean Growth Strategy suggest that the UK is determined to make progress with  this deeply rooted problem.  Could the UK finally be ready to move beyond half-measures and deliver a comprehensive policy package that transforms thermal retrofit into a market that can stand on its own?  Scotland is already underway with the Scottish Energy Efficiency Programme. For this and other UK efforts it would be wise to learn from recent retrofit market transformation examples in the United States.

The US Better Buildings Neighborhood Program (BBNP) was created in 2009 in the wake of the financial crisis.  The US Department of Energy gave a half billion dollars to state and local programs to transform retrofit markets in a way that best suited their communities.  This resulted in 41 different versions of thermal retrofit programs with a common goal: delivering a lasting market change rather than a temporary stimulus.  This created a natural experiment in retrofit program design.   The BBNP was successful against nearly every stated objective including upgrading over 100,000 residential and commercial properties, creating over 10,000 jobs, delivering savings of at least 15% in energy costs per home upgraded, and leveraging 3:1 in outside investment for every program dollar spent.  Perhaps most critically, 84% of grantees continued program elements in the post funding period.  The BBNP is widely regarded as a best practice example of turning national level policies into local action.

A key finding of the BBNP was that to stimulate markets the program must create both a supply push and a demand pull simultaneously.  Delivering this required active strategies across five themes:

1) Program design: to identify local market features and suitable program structures.

2) Marketing and outreach: separates the processes of creating awareness versus personal engagement and Community Based Social Marketing in driving demand.

3) Workforce engagement: this emphasised the need for the program to create drivers in addressing skills gaps across the supply chain.

4) Financial incentives: consider the relative merits of grants versus loans and how to effectively use them in combination.

5) Data and Evaluation: presents techniques for effective program evaluation that enables iterative program adjustments.

Based on the experiences and feedback from the people who delivered the BBNP programmes on what constitutes best practice, a template was created for an ‘optimal’ programme model for retrofit programmes with stated objectives similar to the US BBNP.   Borrowing lessons from programmes like the BBNP means that the UK  can develop a more robust retrofit policy that is based on evidence of what works and avoid reinventing the wheel.

Header image credit: Orangezorki, Getty Images


Dr Aaron Gillich currently works as a Senior Lecturer in the School of the Built Environment and Architecture at London South Bank University. His professional interests cover a wide range of energy and sustainability issues, primarily focusing on the energy trilemma

of delivering a low cost, low carbon, secure energy system.  His PhD work studied domestic retrofit program design and how programs could be delivered at key market intervention points to create a lasting impact.  His current research includes the Balanced Energy Network (BEN) demonstration project at LSBU.  BEN is a prototype heat network that balances the delivery of heating, cooling and electricity using a demand side response control system and distributed storage.

ORCiD: 0000-0002-4132-4824


Energy Performance Gaps: Promises, People, Practices

Special issue

Energy Performance Gaps: Promises, People, Practices

Kirsten Gram-Hanssen and Susse Georg introduce their forthcoming Special Issue

The building sector has been identified as the sector with the largest potential for energy savings. Yet in spite of great technical progress, a large part of the savings have yet to be realized. If the performance gaps are to be lessened, then the potential of energy savings from the residents and  building users and their practices must be considered. For example, building occupants develop  higher expectations of comfort and they often lack an understanding of the control of building technologies. But it is also true that many technologies are not adapted to user needs: they lack user friendliness and can lead to unnecessary and unwanted consumption. However, the practices of the building professionals, their considerations regarding the users and how these considerations are treated in the design, construction and installation processes, or the operation of the buildings, also must be included.

To achieve energy savings, future energy efficient technologies have to meet users’ needs to a greater extent and support their practices in a sustainable direction, and this counts for residents as well as building professionals and their practices. Pursuing this requires deeper understanding of differentiated user practices and their relations to energy consumption. Our recent Building Research & Information special issue on “Energy Performance gaps: Promises, People, Practices” with a curated collection of papers, is dedicated to understanding this and it proposes new directions for building research and practice to actually be able to realise the needed savings.

Policy has, hitherto, been effective in promoting the development of more energy efficient buildings. But policy has not curbed the continuously  growing energy consumption.  Technological efficiency on its own is unlikely to provide the dramatic and rapid reductions needed to meet climate targets. It is therefore also debatable whether the usual economic arguments underlying McKinsey’s ”global GHG abatement cost curve”, establishing the building sector as the most cost effective field for reducing consumption, are still valid. In principle, it is easy to reduce energy consumption in buildings, but the invol

vement of people changes this simple picture, as documented in the articles in the Special Issue.

The conclusions from the special issue include at least three points of relevance for public policy:

  • First, policy must move beyond just focusing on efficiency of buildings and theoretical energy reductions. Policy needs to be more firmly based on understandings of how new technologies will also introduce new practices and new norms of what home, comfort and a good everyday life is.
  • Second, it is necessary to consider how to develop new (smart) technologies which people can understand, domesticate and use, while at the same time consideration must be given to whether these new technologies induce more consumption rather than help consumers to save energy.
  • Third, if policy is to deliver the needed radical CO2 and energy reductions in buildings, then a shift of focus is needed away from regulation as a one-time gateway which only assesses the design and material aspects of a building. Instead, policies and regulations should consider alternatives which include an ongoing assessment of both the material and social aspects of building operation, along with guidance and support to occupants.

There is much to be gained from a policy and regulatory regime that takes a ‘both-and’ approach to technical and social issues. The research in our special issue collectively makes a strong case for focusing more actions on user practices in energy.

About the authors

Seniorforsker Kirsten Gram-Hanssen, SBI 

Kirsten Gram-Hanssen is a Professor at the Danish Building Research Institute (SBI), Aalborg University Copenhagen. ORCiD: 0000-0002-8543-2501


Susse Georg is a Professor in the Department of Planning, Aalborg University Copenhagen. ORCiD: 0000-0001-9981-2444