Why We Need Energy Sufficiency as Well as Efficiency

Energy efficiency isn't enough anymore.

Clothes drying in Lisbon
Sufficiency in action in Lisbon.

 Lloyd Alter

Everybody talks about efficiency, about using less energy to do a given task. But it often seems like we are not really getting anywhere; as cars got more efficient, they got bigger. As windows and building materials got more efficient, we got Bjarke.

That's why we have been banging on about sufficiency, suggesting that making things more efficient is not enough; we have to ask ourselves what we really need. We often use the example of the clothesline or the bicycle as sufficient to do the job. Clotheslines are a popular analogy; a website I have just discovered for the Energy Sufficiency project uses them too:

"Picture this: lines of washing strung between buildings in southern Italy.  Everyone can afford one, the washing on them is quickly dried and aired, and minimal energy is used.  That’s energy sufficiency. But obviously not applicable anywhere in the world. And now picture this: a modern apartment block, designed so that it stays warm in winter and cool in summer with very little energy use; designed so that the numbers and sizes of rooms in each apartment can be changed as families grow and contract; designed with shared laundry rooms and guest rooms so that space and equipment is fully utilised. That’s energy sufficiency too."

It has been difficult to describe energy sufficiency in built form. It has been hard to even define it, but they try:

"Energy sufficiency is a state in which people’s basic needs for energy services are met equitably and ecological limits are respected." 

When it comes to our built environment, we have discussed simple forms and called for a different way of looking at buildings, and discussed sufficiency as a concept. But the study, "Energy Sufficiency in Buildings," written by Anja Bierwirth and Stefan from the Thomas Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, is the first I have seen that tries to wrap it up in a coherent bundle, with four main categories:

examples of sufficiency
 Ana Bierwirth and Stefan Thomas

So as we have said before, you start with a simple form (see In Praise of the Dumb Box) but you also build smaller, more efficient buildings. You design and build to very high standards (like Passive House) but also look at ways of sharing spaces, such as cohousing, or making spaces adaptable and changeable as described in Why the Future of Housing Should Be Multifamily and Multigenerational. Everything designed around what we need, with maximum flexibility and adaptability; the minimum that does the job that has to be done.

Sufficiency has always been a hard sell, talking about people's needs rather than their wants. But there are ways that sufficiency can be encouraged. As the Energy Sufficiency project notes,

"Energy sufficiency offers us ways to go beyond energy efficiency and reduce our energy use. There are many energy services that are already fulfilled by some people in a more energy sufficient way (line drying of washing; smaller living quarters, shared equipment, bicycle use). Not all of these will suit everyone; not all will be possible for everyone. But more of us could do more of them. And the infrastructures around us could be better designed to enable this."

As we have written before, you are not going to get people to ride bikes if they don't have a safe route and a secure place to park. It's hard to get people to live in smaller spaces if there are no decent parks and urban amenities. The shared infrastructure is essential.

Good Cities Make Small Fridges

Small Fridges Make Good Cities
Small Fridges Make Good Cities. Williamson Chong

Another example that the Energy Sufficiency site uses that is dear to this Treehugger's heart is about the refrigerator. We have gone on for years about how small fridges make good cities, how "people who have them are out in their community every day, buy what is seasonal and fresh, buy as much as they need, responding to the marketplace, the baker, vegetable store and neighborhood vendor."

But I had to eventually revise it a bit, and wrote, "Small Fridges Don’t Make Good Cities; It’s More Accurate to Say That Good Cities Make Small Fridges." Fridges are a great example of how sufficiency depends on the community and the infrastructure around us. The Energy Sufficiency people come to the same conclusion:

"The simplest example of how infrastructure affects our energy use here is the ‘infrastructure’ of fridge manufacture and sales: if we are offered, and indeed encouraged to buy, larger fridges with more features, it makes it easier for us to make the less energy sufficient choice; if the benefits of smaller fridges are sold to us, we might make a more energy sufficient choice.  But we also need to think more broadly here: we can live happily with a smaller fridge, but only if it ‘makes sense’ for us to shop frequently for fresh food.  The infrastructure needed for this to happen is a store selling the food we want at a price we are happy with on a route that we use every day.  If this does not exist, we are more likely to choose a pattern of shopping that requires greater cold storage space and hence a larger fridge. To influence this, we need to look beyond energy efficiency policy to land-use and urban planning policies and practices."
The Future We Want
screen capture, Tesla solar roof launch

We have noted before that sufficiency is a tough sell; small apartments and bikes are sufficient, but everybody wants a solar roof and a Tesla. People like having more stuff, not less. But as they say on the Energy Sufficiency website,

"More is not always better, and we need to create the infrastructures and systems that will allow people to live good lives, within the planet’s environmental limits.  Can we do this?  Yes, we can .... We need to understand what energy sufficiency is and apply our creative intelligence to developing solutions that deliver it."