On and Off are Not the Same: The Case for Conservation in an Efficient World
by Paul Grover, Kilawatt Partners 444 Juniper Ridge Shelburne, VT 05482
802 985-2285

The State of Vermont has the nation’s first statewide energy efficiency utility. This was a landmark development, but now it is time to take the next step.

Hopefully, no Vermonter gets up in the morning and says, “Today, I am going to waste energy.” We are smarter than that: we see the value in using only the electricity we need. Our motives to use less energy may be ethical or practical. Some say that exhausting our non-renewable energy resources is robbing future generations of the same benefits we have enjoyed. Others know that reducing electricity costs increases profits and visibility.

When discussing the future of Vermont’s energy challenges, most people, even those in the “business”, use the terms “efficiency” and “conservation” interchangeably. This may turn out to be a grave mistake.

When we understand just how different these terms are, the solutions to our energy problems, present and future, become much clearer.


Engineers originally created the term “efficiency” to quantify the performance of machines. Efficiency compares the energy we put into a machine with what comes out of the machine. If you put 100 energy units into a motor that produces 60 units of motor energy, that motor is 60% efficient. All things being equal, a more efficient machine uses less energy than a less efficient machine.

What people may not realize is that “energy efficient” equipment must be on to produce energy savings. And second, the longer it’s on, the more we “save.” The message is that it is fine to use as much energy as we want as long as we use it efficiently.

Efficiency enables Vermonters to get more from what they use, without limits. For example, more efficient cars get more miles per gallon, yet we use more gas every year by driving more miles per vehicle, driving faster, driving alone and driving shorter trips. Deep down, efficiency tells us that the more we drive our efficient cars, the more gasoline we “save,” so, we are off the hook. Efficiency is like buying low-fat potato chips to “save” calories and then feeling good about eating the whole bag as part of our diet.

This approach to saving energy is not good news for our environment, our health or our increasing dependence on unstable foreign energy resources. When confronted with this view, efficiency proponents argue that resource use would have gone up even faster had we not funded efficiency equipment with taxpayer dollars. This is like continuing the same losing strategy over and over in a football game, only to be surprised at the resulting score!


Energy conservation is quite different from energy efficiency. The late Fred Tuttle best summed up “conservation” when he told me, “If y’ don’t need it, turn the durn thing off.” The goal of conservation is to minimize resource use and eliminate waste. While efficiency gets us more bang for the buck when equipment is on, conservation gives us even greater benefit when that same equipment is off.

While efficiency and conservation may have the same motives, nothing beats energy conservation. This simple example illustrates the difference:

  • After we turn on a light, our concern is efficiency, or how to get a high ratio of light from the electricity used, without limit.

  • When we turn that light off, we are certain to conserve energy. We preserve energy resources whether the bulb is energy efficient or not. In fact, the more inefficient the bulb is, the more we save.

If energy efficiency is our only concern, very efficient lights are lit whether we need them on or not. The longer we burn our energy efficient bulbs, the more we “save.” Efficiency can waste a lot of electricity.

But, we might ask, doesn’t efficiency reduce the demand for energy resources? After all, since 1992, the State of Vermont has mandated that our utilities, and now Efficiency Vermont, motivate Vermonters to purchase energy efficient equipment – lamps, ballasts, motors, milk coolers, homes, and so on. The fact is that after spending many millions of ratepayer dollars on efficiency, electricity use per commercial and industrial customer in Vermont has increased during this period, not decreased since 1992. For example, between 1992 and 2001, electricity use per Vermont business increased 8%, even with the recession.

So, what about energy conservation? For the past couple of years, I have been working with Vermont homeowners and business people to analyze what they have turned on, when it needs to be on and how to safely turn it off when it’s not needed. It’s a blend of Yankee ingenuity and old-fashioned common sense, like Fred Tuttle’s. Most of the businesses with which I work have already invested in energy-efficient equipment. And yet, we can find ways to reduce their electricity use by 30-40% with returns on investment of less of 25% or more, compared to multi-year paybacks for investing in energy efficiency equipment. Such successes demonstrate just how much electricity and fossil fuels we all waste and how cost-effective it is to stop this waste. This is good news for our environment, our climate and our health – and it decreases our dependence on foreign energy resources.

From a policy point of view, these successes also demonstrate the shortcomings of solely promoting efficiency. In this case, we must invest in efficient products and landfill the old ones. And those products must be on to realize savings. Much greater energy savings come from using our existing technology only when necessary. It’s not just the car we own, it’s how much gas we use. It’s not the type of lamp we buy that’s most important, it’s how and when we use the light switch. And, it is not up to the State of Vermont or our electric utilities to create our energy future, it’s up to you and me.

So here is the bottom line. Efficiency and conservation are not the same. Conservation means increased comfort and productivity, since no one will miss the energy we waste. Conservation and efficiency produce very different results. And finally, using more is not using less and on and off are not the same.