The Big Difference Between Energy Efficiency and Sustainability

The Big Difference Between Energy Efficiency and Sustainability

A misunderstanding of the difference between sustainability versus energy efficiency is preventing practitioners from reaching their goals of helping the environment.

Roughly 10 years ago, corporations woke to the realization that energy is expensive. Prior to that, energy was a tool, worth any cost, to power economic growth (a perception that continues today in the halls of Congress). Using more fuel to power a delivery truck to drive faster to save time was well worth whatever fuel costs incurred.

The sustainability movement showed companies how they could save money. In this case, a slower delivery vehicle saves enough on fuel to offset what it loses in time. Sustainability practitioners have a litany of similar low-hanging fruit that is currently saving corporations millions of dollars each year, but that has had an unfortunate side effect on our industry.

Sustainability currently consists of 99 percent cost savings and 1 percent environmental savings. That 1 percent is really only PR value or employee buy-in. It's the incentive that keeps sustainability practitioners working hard. A focus on energy efficiency has distracted our industry from the original goal -- an impact on the environment.

Energy efficiency does nothing for the environment. In fact, it may even be worse for the environment than doing nothing at all. Efficiency equals increased profitability. Increased profitability leads to growth. Growth leads to the use of more energy.

Energy efficiency = profits = growth = higher energy use

Don't get me wrong, growth is great. But if it isn't sustainable growth, then what have we accomplished?

The problem lies largely in our misallocation of blame. Consider the following two familiar statistics:

1. IT equipment is responsible for 2 percent of the world's CO2e emissions.
2. Buildings are responsible for 40 percent of the world's CO2e emissions.

You've probably heard them before. In fact, you're probably doing everything you can to cut those numbers down by employing every energy efficient device known to man.

You are wasting our time.

You are not addressing the root of the problem. You are shaving the hydra's beard. Buildings and IT equipment, in fact, are responsible for precisely 0 percent of the world's CO2e emissions. It is the coal fired power plant they draw their energy from that creates the emissions. To cover the example used earlier, a more efficient truck still uses diesel fuel. Until we address this single issue of energy input, we are failing to mitigate any adverse environmental effects by addressing energy output.

The perverse reality is this: energy efficiency is subsidizing CO2e emissions. Every recommendation you make for a dollar spent on energy efficiency is a dollar the utilities don't need to spend on CO2e scrubbing technology. To rephrase the previous equation:

Energy efficiency = profits = unsustainable growth = higher CO2e emissions

So what is sustainability if it is not energy efficiency?

The ideal sustainable business creates outputs and inputs that are interchangeable. A perfectly sustainable business would have zero waste and would require zero input outside of growth. Simply put, it is the Cradle to Cradle design.

Let's take an example from the IT equipment mentioned above. IT equipment produces heat as a waste product. That heat is then either ducted out of the server room via a fan or cooled with an AC unit. Both solutions require additional energy.

Air-cooled IT rooms allow that heat to dissipate outside, especially in cooler climes. This is an energy efficient solution. Ducting that waste heat into nearby offices to heat employees would also be an energy efficient win, but now we have a sustainable solution. We have zero waste. Supplying the electricity for the IT room from a renewable energy source would give us a nearly perfect sustainable system.

Sustainability = profits = sustainable growth = zero emissions

By not taking this extra step from efficiency to sustainability, we as sustainability practitioners are actually failing the movement and the planet. And we're wasting precious time.

Seth Scott is the CEO and founder of ProBorea, a sustainability and climate change consulting firm.