Mr. Cummings is right: Energy efficiency is boring

We all love a contentious headline don’t we?

In July, the government launched a new grant scheme to encourage homeowners to invest in energy saving measures, partially filling a silent black hole in UK climate policy that’s existed for at least half a decade.

We’ve gone years without any genuine government action on domestic energy efficiency, save for the largely ineffectual Energy Company Obligation (ECO) and the Minimum Energy Efficiency Standards (MEES) for rented buildings, which aren’t even being policed. Given that the UK’s housing stock is among the least efficient in Europe, these measures have been little more than tiny sticking plasters on a huge, gaping wound.

The absence of government action on energy efficiency is all the more alarming given that retrofitting buildings is simultaneously one of the most cost-effective ways to tackle climate change and a fantastic opportunity to create hundreds of thousands of jobs. It also saves homeowners and renters money, reduces fuel poverty, improves health & wellbeing and eases pressure on the electricity grid. That’s a double hat-trick of wins. It’s a win-win-win-win-win-win.


So why hasn’t energy efficiency been at the top of our national to-do list? It’s pretty simple really: it’s boring. Dominic Cummings has reportedly sought to water down energy efficiency policy for that very reason. Compared with ever-new and exciting ways to produce energy, just using less of it seems a bit dull.

It’s also invisible. There’s nothing physical to cling onto and show your friends. Why spend a few billion on energy efficiency when a brand-spanking-new nuclear power station could generate the same amount of energy you would be saving? (Even if that power station will cost far, far, far more).

Case in point: It was impossible to find an attractive energy efficiency themed image for this blog post. If I was writing about renewables, I could choose from a million and one stylish photos of sunlight glinting off sapphire solar panels, or wind turbines standing sentinel in long, majestic lines on dusky horizons. Energy efficiency? A guy rolling out loft insulation. A radiator. A hand turning down a thermostat. A lightbulb. That’s about it. And to make it even worse, the most visually appealing lightbulbs tend to be the least energy efficient ones. See my point?

Absolutely, positively, necessary

I am of course playing devil’s advocate. The truth is, energy efficiency is absolutely essential if we’re to mitigate the climate emergency. There’s no getting around it. Heating our homes accounts for nearly a fifth of UK emissions, and that’s excluding electricity use. The vast majority of the buildings standing today will still be here in 50 years’ time, so we can’t simply build our way out of trouble.

Photo: Dan Slee / flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

We’re also in the midst of a fuel poverty crisis. At least 10,000 people die on average each year from cold homes, and related ill health costs the NHS billions. The government has a statutory target to ensure as many fuel poor homes as possible reach a minimum Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) rating of Band C by 2030, but at the current rate of progress that will take nearly a century.

If we turn things around and put in place the policies and programmes required to make our housing stock fit for the future, we could create a burgeoning low carbon industry and more than 300,000 jobs over the next ten years. The economic and social opportunities are massive — if you’re looking for positive solutions that will help us rebuild the economy after COVID-19, this is it.

So what’s to be done?

So how can we make energy efficiency seem less boring? As a writer I may be biased, but I think part of the problem lies in the name. The word ‘efficiency’ is problematic. It’s the antithesis of ‘sexy’. It conjures up images of bureaucratic bean counters and humourless bespectacled consultants holding clipboards. It says ‘use less’, which we certainly need to do, but maybe we should be re-framing it as ‘use better’.

One of the alternative terms I’ve heard is ‘energy intelligence’. That at least captures the imagination. It suggests there’s something clever and interesting going on behind the scenes. Which is true; a lot of energy saving technology is genuinely clever and interesting. And isn’t an energy efficient building just one that uses energy intelligently? It’s the same outcome, but with an added sense of wisdom and ingenuity that perhaps even Mr. Cummings could get on board with.

Is changing the name going to solve the problem? Of course not, but hopefully it does highlight the importance of choosing words carefully when communicating really, really important things that we really, really want people to do.