Energy Efficiency First: setting the standard for a sustainable future

Morten Helveg Petersen is a Danish MEP, vice-president of the European Parliament Committee on Industry, Research and Energy, and member of the Renew Europe Group. In an interview with ABB’s Vincenzo Conforti he discusses the role that the EU and businesses have to play in improving energy efficiency in Europe and around the world.

The realization that energy usage must become more sustainable and efficient is not new. The EU has played a part in promoting energy efficiency for two decades, and it is a vision shared by many parliamentarians. “Over the years, the European Parliament has been setting the agenda,” says Morten Petersen, “and, when I speak to my colleagues from different parliamentary groups, I see that the principle of ‘energy efficiency first’ has a key role to play in realizing our objectives.”  

The devil is in the detail 

‘Energy efficiency first’ is a key principle of the EU, intended to ensure sustainable and affordable energy supplies in the area. Elements of this strategy include the target of a 32.5% reduction in energy consumption, and legislation concerning the energy efficiency of buildings and consumer products, for example. 

Petersen is not complacent about the challenges ahead. “There is attention from the parliament, but we need to keep on pushing and ensure we keep it on the agenda,” he explains. “We need to make sure that energy efficiency is something that we are ambitious about. We are faced with a tsunami of legislation, so it is an exercise in itself to ensure a coherent, systematic approach, guaranteeing that the energy efficiency principle is there. The devil will be in the detail as usual, so we have to be vigilant.” 


“For every day that passes without serious action it is going to get more difficult.”

Motivation creation 

Certain energy efficiency standards are more advanced than others, Petersen notes. Europe has long had legislation on electric light bulbs, and electric motors, for example. But applying energy efficiency to new areas can cause resistance. “As an example,” he says, “renovating buildings is a very costly exercise, even though you have high rates of return or low payback times. People are unsure what the benefits are. But if we point out that you also stimulate the local economy, create jobs, and so on, and make it easier to finance, then there is more motivation to renovate public and private buildings in an energy-efficient way.” 

Assuming that there are benefits to the energy efficiency first principle, and that the theory is sound, the challenge seems to be, then, how does one apply the principle in practice? “A mix of policy and incentives is needed. People should be encouraged to be an active member of society in relation to energy efficiency, and we have to make it easier for them to make the right choices.”  

The power of business 

Not surprisingly, businesses are also key to transformation. “They play a key role in developing smart solutions,” Petersen agrees, “not only in developing and implementing these technologies and proving their worth in financial terms, but also as a source of inspiration to all of us to improve energy efficiency. There are both idealistic and financial benefits.” 

Furthermore, collaboration between businesses and public authorities can yield immediate benefits. “There was an interesting project in a municipality in Denmark,” he continues, “where dashboard solutions were created for municipal buildings that might say, okay, the energy consumption on the third floor of this school is going through the roof. So, what is happening? A window might be open, or lights left on. And with this solution you incentivize the public authorities by saying they can save a certain amount if they close the window or turn off the light. These are the kinds of incentives and information flows that you have to have in order to make it convenient and easy for people to do the right thing.” 

We hope our ambition will serve as an inspiration

Recent initiatives such as the European Green Deal give support to Petersen’s ideas. “The concept of the Green Deal is fascinating, and I am a big fan,” he concurs. “The vision of transforming entire economies is mind-blowing. But if we succeed – and we must succeed, given the urgency of the situation – then Europe will be the first continent to have such a broad and coherent package of legislation, which will have an effect outside the EU’s borders. We talk about the Brussels effect in green sectors, where these crazy Europeans spend years legislating back and forth, but when they finally act, people take note and adopt the same practices. We hope our ambition will serve as an inspiration.”  

A diminishing path to success 

Where there is a will, there is a way, goes the saying. For Morten Petersen himself, the motivation to improve energy efficiency drastically and speedily is simple – combatting the climate crisis. “The climate issue and associated challenges are so serious,” he says, noting a recent IEA report about the path to net-zero energy use.  

“The report said that there is a way to achieve this by 2050, but the path is getting smaller and smaller. For every day that passes without serious action it is going to get more difficult, so I think that was a stern warning to all of us that we really have to get our act together. In doing so we need support from all of public life, from NGOs and academia to businesses, politicians and so on. Everybody has to play their role in this if we are to succeed.” 

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