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How to better implement energy efficiency measures in achieving climate policy goals

A group of experts has identified various barriers to the execution of the ‘energy efficiency first’ principle in energy planning, policymaking and investment decisions throughout Europe.


The energy efficiency first principle is increasingly incorporated into policymaking, planning and investment as part of efforts to achieve climate neutrality by 2050 as set in the EU’s Green Deal. The concept involves energy savings and “giving priority to demand-side solutions whenever they are more cost effective than investments in energy supply infrastructure”, as acknowledged in the European Commission’s strategy for energy sector integration. “Applying the energy-efficiency-first principle across sectoral policies is at the core of system integration.” The Efficiency First (E1st) principle, which emerged in the 2010s, was formally adopted by the EU in December 2018 in the Regulation EU 2018/1999 on the Governance of the Energy Union and Climate Action. However, there are several barriers to its implementation in various policy areas, ranging from legal and regulatory, institutional and organisational capacities to economic and social/cultural ones. This is the conclusion of a survey conducted amongst European experts working on energy and/or building policies as part of the EU-funded ENEFIRST project. “E1st seems like a clear principle and the term has already been incorporated in many national and sub-national policy strategies. Nevertheless, knowledge of the principle and awareness of how to make it work in practice seem still to be limited across all sectors and levels.” The survey, which covers various policy areas linked to energy use in the building sector like network codes, renewable energy policy and building regulations, highlights political barriers as “the category most frequently mentioned by respondents, suggesting that implementing the E1st principle would be first and foremost a political decision.” It adds: “We see from the survey, barriers or perceived barriers can be found at all levels and points of decision making and have a lot to do with information and financial interests.” The report also points out how a majority of respondents emphasised “the lack of expertise, knowledge, awareness or understanding, which suggests that a proactive dissemination of good practices and case studies is important.”

Cultural barriers

Quoted in a news item, report author Senta Schmatzberger comments: “The barriers are reinforced by a lack of knowledge about the benefits of putting efficiency first beyond energy savings for end-users, and particularly, its benefits for society as a whole.” The ENEFIRST report also refers to cultural barriers that “are related to actors’ own habits and practices as well as about breaking silo thinking.” One survey respondent states that this way of thinking “between demand and supply side is a problem. Energy suppliers benefit from E1st in terms of infrastructure requirements and peak demand, but this link is nearly never made.” To help identify the barriers related to carrying out E1st, the report also includes a review of 16 examples of policies, regulatory frameworks, energy company programmes and other initiatives that have implemented the E1st principle in practice. These are analysed in detail in ENEFIRST’s ‘Report on international experiences with E1st’. The case studies cover various E1st-related practices in Europe and the United States. Some of these examples include utilising time-of-use tariffs to spread demand around the day, the rollout of district heating networks, demand response, decoupling utility sales from revenues, using water heaters as grid storage and exploiting efficiency potential in buildings through a digital logbook. The ENEFIRST (Making Energy Efficiency First principle operational) project will run until February 2022. For more information, please see: ENEFIRST project website


ENEFIRST, energy efficiency first, energy saving, E1st

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