Saving the World, One Light Bulb at a Time Why Conservation Is the World's Best Energy Source

Warnings of a coming climate catastrophe caused by greenhouse gas emissions are growing louder. But the pressure for economic growth around the globe is pushing gas and oil prices higher. The solution seems deceptively simple: conserve energy by using it more efficiently. So why aren't more people doing exactly that?

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A satellite image of Europe at night: Residents of Western Europe's industrial nations waste enormous amunts of electricity, petrol, heating oil and gas. Without any noticeable decrease in quality of life, consumers could reduce their energy consumption by one-fifth.
AP/ NASA

A satellite image of Europe at night: Residents of Western Europe's industrial nations waste enormous amunts of electricity, petrol, heating oil and gas. Without any noticeable decrease in quality of life, consumers could reduce their energy consumption by one-fifth.

Peter Lentz always starts his hunt for wastefulness in the cellar. That’s where the energy expert hits pay dirt on this particular morning too: He feels it as soon as he walks into the boiler room. It’s too warm down here.

The thermometer shows 29 degrees Celsius (84.2 degrees Fahrenheit). The apartment building has two boilers supplying its heat. Both are running even though it’s above freezing outside. “One would be more than enough,” says Lentz. But what really stuns the energy specialist is the fact that each unit has a water capacity of 2,500 liters (660.4 gallons), which he considers “absolute nonsense.”

Lentz directs WGB Wärme GmbH, a Berlin-based company with a unique business model. His firm turns a profit by saving energy for its clients. WGB installs modern heating systems that can be controlled from its service center. Clients agree to buy oil or gas from the firm for a set period of time, say ten years, but do not pay a cent for the equipment. Instead, WGB finances the new heating systems from the energy savings it provides.

The deal pays off for both client and contractor -- and helps the environment at the same time. Energy savings average between 15 and 20 percent, but are often even more. The clever concept is becoming quite popular in Germany; there are already some 500 energy contractors like WGB providing services to real estate companies, supermarkets and even prisons. And their market share is growing by about 15 percent each year.

The conservation industry

Conserving energy is rapidly becoming a growth sector. The new industry is creating thousands of jobs in areas where German firms are already leaders. Who would have thought 20 years ago that modern technology for wind and solar energy would eventually become an export hit? Or that shares in these companies would be traded on the stock market?

Graphic: Energy Consumption and Savings Goal
DER SPIEGEL

Graphic: Energy Consumption and Savings Goal

With humanity wasting massive amounts of oil, gas and coal to heat buildings, power industry and fuel vehicles, the potential for conservation efforts is vast. Fossil fuel consumption has increased by two-thirds within a generation. Rapidly growing economies in Asia and countries formerly part of the Soviet Union have increased the global competition for resources. The world seems to have insatiable appetite for energy these days.

And the future of new economic powerhouses like China and India depends on a steadily growing global energy supply. But where modern technology falls by the wayside in their rapid development, massive quantities of natural resources are wastefully being burned and pumped into the atmosphere. That makes no sense economically, and it's environmentally insane.

Climate change reports released by the United Nations last week and in February came to rather worrisome conclusions about the state of worldwide greenhouse-gas emissions and global warming. That in part has encouraged leaders of all political persuasions and nationalities to declare themselves ready to make environmental protection a priority. The alarming forecasts even led German Chancellor Angela Merkel to announce: “It’s five minutes till midnight.” But can anything actually be done to turn back the clock?

Asia ascendent

Future superpower China is already the world’s second biggest consumer of oil after the United States, even though the Asian giant is hardly motorized. Only 19 out of 1,000 Chinese drive a car, whereas in America some 780 people out of 1,000 do. And China is second only to the United States when it comes to belching greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Graphic: International comparison of energy efficiency
DER SPIEGEL

Graphic: International comparison of energy efficiency

Hundreds of millions of people want to copy Western standards of living and Western consumer habits -- hurtling their countries toward environmental catastrophes in the process. At the same time citizens of the industrialized world are beginning to fret over the question of how much more the planet can withstand. How can mankind’s monstrous appetite for energy be sated in both Asia and in the West?

In the past, it was enough to simply drill for new oil and gas fields, burn larger amounts of coal and build more nuclear power plants. But these days even enthusiastic growth optimists are pointing out the limits of such a strategy: It’s too expensive, too dangerous, and -- above all -- too dirty.

One reliable source of energy is not even close to being depleted: Simply saving it may be the safest and cleanest option mankind has. It also happens to make a tidy profit.

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