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Society | Nature | Capital

Resource Efficiency

The Honda Insight, an electric-gas hybrid car, gets 70 mpg. This one is owned by a car-sharing utility.
Image by Melissa Tatge.

The use of water, energy, and materials throughout society is extremely inefficient. This creates enormous demands on nature, both for new supplies, and for sinks to absorb wastes. It also leads to massive economic waste, as highly concentrated and energy-intensive materials are simply thrown away.

Resource efficiency — whether of water, energy, or materials — may be measured by the same fundamental ratio: the (net) amount of resources consumed divided by the units of actual service provided (e.g. information transmitted). Resource efficiency is measure of how effectively resources of all kinds are being used to meet fundamental needs. It improves as less water, energy, and materials is used to provide enhanced and more diverse services over longer periods of time. For instance, a showerhead that delivers half the water per second at much higher pressure delivers the same end-use service (comfortable shower) with twice the water efficiency. A pipe that is twice as wide offers thirty-two times less frictional loss for a pump, greatly increasing energy efficiency. A building with advanced window glazings, sealed leaks, and above-code levels of insulation may be 30% to 50% more energy efficient than a conventional one.

In each case, the same level of service is provided, and therefore the same revenue stream is available. However, operating costs are reduced through decreased energy bills; decreased water bills; reduced expenses for raw materials; decreased expenses for wastewater treatment and waste disposal; and potentially decreased costs dealing with permits and regulations. Investments in resource efficiency, particularly when optimized over the entire system, can offer rapid payback times. They are not made as widely as they should principally because of a lack of time, awareness, and technical know-how. In addition, until true cost pricing is implemented, resources will remain artificially cheap, reducing the incentive for resource efficiency.

While water, energy, and materials costs may account for only a small percentage of household expenditures or company expenses, they often offer tangible benefits far beyond this apparent percentage. For instance, energy efficiency improvements may enhance indoor air quality and comfort in a building. Manufacturing process changes to reduce materials use typically improve worker productivity.

Resource efficiency strategies, complemented by the shift to product as service, are critical in greatly decreasing the scale of water, energy, and material flows generated by economic activity. It has been estimated that resource efficiency across a variety of sectors must increase by a factor of four to ten globally to meet the increasingly sophisticated demands of a growing population. Over time, by reducing pressures on nature, this makes it possible to use renewable energy sources for energy needs and materials cycles for materials needs.

The beauty of resource efficiency is that it can be tapped by individuals and green businesses alike, whether in an urban center or a remote coastal town. household economies can simultaneously save money and improve their quality of life. By stretching local resources farther, more needs can be met locally. Skilled jobs in weatherization, installing drip irrigation systems, performing energy audits, and implementing pollution prevention help to maintain local economies and keep dollars circulating in the community.

Through good design and careful use, stretch every gallon of water, joule of energy, and pound of materials further to meet fundamental needs. Provide the same level of service with two to ten times less resource use.


Case Studies
Examples of this pattern in action:

Eco-Home
Eco-Home is an on-going living research center that demonstrates ecological living in an urban environment. The Eco-Home is a restored and retrofitted California style bungalow, circa 1911 that shows us how simple but wise property improvements can make your home warm, friendly yet environmentally sound and healthy. This historic home incorporates solar hot water heating, photovoltaic panels, ultra low flow water systems and other energy and water conservation measures. This "pioneering" home has hosted over 10,000 guests since opening it's doors to the public in 1988.

Organizations whose work incorporate this pattern:

Center of Excellence for Sustainable Development

References:

Desimone, Livio D and Frank Popoff. Eco-Efficiency: The Business Link to Sustainable Development. MIT Press. Cambridge, MA. 2000.

von Weizsacker, E.U., A.B. Lovins and L.H. Lovins. Factor Four: Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource Use. Earthscan/Rocky Mountain Institute. London, UK. 1997.

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