There’s a better and cheaper way to ease our electricity crisis – drastically reduce demand

Photo: Witbank Powerstation, South Africa. Chris Butters.

We could fulfil all our power needs with less than one quarter of today’s energy – with existing technologies, through intelligent design, and often at a much lower cost than building new power stations.

This article is relevant for all countries, and was written in and for South Africa where there is a growing energy crisis. Reducing demand – energy descent – is now official policy in many OECD countries.

By Chris Butters
Chris Butters

28 Sep 2022

Listen to this article 0:00 / 6:27 1X BeyondWords

Many useful points are made by the energy experts interviewed by Daily Maverick in the 22 September 2022 article, “Four energy experts tell us what needs to be done to end Eskom’s electricity crisis”.

However, in the energy discussions there is almost never mention of the huge potential that lies in REDUCING energy needs – through efficiency and conservation (which are different things).

This is the demand-side approach as opposed to today’s largely supply-side thinking. Research worldwide over the past 40 years has shown how we could fulfil all our needs with less than one quarter of today’s energy – with existing technologies, and often at a much lower cost than building new power stations.

Basically, energy efficiency means using more efficient technologies. Obviously this doesn’t help much if one then starts using the device twice as much – for example, driving your fuel-efficient car much more often, or buying an energy-efficient fridge that’s twice as large.

Energy conservation is about changing one’s habits and consumption, which also means directly saving money and resources. In many cases, it’s a simpler and healthier life.

Clearly, fossil fuels are with us for some time to come, like it or not, especially in poorer countries such as South Africa where coal is abundant, or Malaysia which has gas resources. Renewables, which are inevitably the future, will take time – but are taking much longer than necessary.

With the exception of (also neglected) biomass energy, they do not provide base-load power, but they can still cover a large part of demand. That wind and solar are seasonal is not a major obstacle. (Debates about base load versus renewables are pointless, we obviously need both).

Uranium is, like oil, a limited resource; building nuclear takes far too long. And nuclear is, simply, one of the most expensive options, so why on Earth choose that? Nuclear also bears some ugly risks, but the biggest risk – in this country – is incompetent or corrupt procurement and management.

You can’t afford shoddy welding or mistakes with a nuclear reactor.

Read more in Daily Maverick: “As SA teeters on the brink of full-blown energy disaster, it’s vital the right decisions are made – now

Today’s situation is the fully foreseeable result of a complete lack of energy planning, plus incompetence and corruption by the ANC governments, including today’s energy ministry, and the present Eskom management bears little, if any, of the blame.

One of the major advantages of demand reduction is geopolitical; lower demand simply means less reliance on Russia or the Middle East or anybody else. On the individual level it means less dependence on Eskom or even on solar panels.

If we convert energy into units of human work, the modern, relatively well-off family uses the equivalent of about 200 slaves, so hooked are we on energy. Not forgetting that the poor need more, not less energy, in future, the amount needed to cover at least basic needs is small – a light bulb, a fridge, a hotplate – the essential services for human well-being which the ANC completely fails to deliver. The poor are not the ones responsible for high energy consumption.

Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations

Reducing demand also completely avoids the problem of insufficient capacity in existing power lines and distribution. Reducing demand through both efficiency and conservation is not an instant fix, but it is a key part of any sensible and sustainable energy plan. It is often the cheapest, too.

Not least, if the world’s dependence on coal, oil and gas is reduced, then the remaining fossil fuels will become far cheaper for the poorer countries who must still rely on them for several decades. Whether supply is by fossil fuels or renewables, reducing demand is also the cleanest option by far; even wind and solar are not without some environmental impacts. And they can break down!

‘Energy descent’ futures

Studies and proposals all over the world have for more than 30 years been describing “energy descent” futures where the overall energy demand is reduced drastically. A major early example was the report “Basic Needs and Much More with One Kilowatt per Capita”, published in Sweden in 1985 by four leading world experts. And there have been dozens of detailed studies by top international researchers and institutions since.

The potential for reducing energy needs is colossal. It starts with intelligent design. For two decades we have been designing near-zero-energy buildings (in Scandinavia, Germany and other countries).

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Grim Reippp(er) — undoing the choke-hold on SA’s renewable energy programme

Cities can be designed for much lower energy needs. Many industries could more than halve their present energy use through instantly profitable measures. The technology is actually the easier part; getting it to happen, through good policies and incentives, is harder.

Reducing energy needs, such as through building insulation and industrial efficiency, also offers thousands of jobs – far more than building new power stations. Unfortunately, the energy industry, from the oil companies on down, seldom supports demand-side reductions, since it means selling LESS energy – and selling less new energy equipment.

Read more in Daily Maverick: “We are not alone — energy crises are a growing global phenomenon

There is also a very serious systemic fault in the South African picture where cities get some of their income from sales of energy, since this directly discourages energy saving.

Our motto in the Gaia sustainable planning network has long been: the ONLY kind of energy that is totally environmentally friendly, reliable and trouble free, is the energy that you don’t need. DM


We publish sciencebased environmental information to the building industry.

+47 47847774 /