The urgency of an energy transition towards renewable solutions is undisputed. To this end, research is exploring opportunities to improve available technologies. Fortunately, existing solutions are more affordable nowadays thanks to lower production costs. As much remains pending younger generations are legitimately calling on their political leaders to scale up climate protection efforts. And rightly so, individuals and manufacturers insist greener electricity is overdue. Nevertheless, on our journey towards a more climate-friendly future, there’s nothing wrong with pulling over every now and then, switching off the (electric) engine and poking around the logbook. In hindsight, it’s impressive to realize how little we knew then and yet still do better today.
Energy Consumption back then
In October 1976, the magazine of the newspaper Tages Anzeiger (today: das Magazin) devoted an entire issue to the matter of wasting energy and asked its readership, "How much energy do we actually need?". The concerning edition informed that not only is 85% of consumed energy imported, but almost half of all produced electricity is lost before it is used (Schilling, 1976).
Only a few years before this issue was published, the oil crisis shook global economies. As a result, refueling vehicles cost up to four times what it did in the previous year. It is no surprise that lockable gas caps were invented during that time. The oil shock painfully reminded the world of its OPEC dependence. Already before this crisis, environmental- and consumer protection organizations were calling for a "thriftier handling of the precious commodity energy".
At the time, like the Swiss Postal, Telephone and Telegraph Agency (PTT), electricity was exclusively governed by the state and regulated under public law. Due to increasing civilian pressure, energy policies were reconsidered and a national electricity saving agenda was introduced. By following suit, the concerning article proposed particular measures to its readership on how to consume less electricity and divided its suggestions into four clusters: "general", "transport", "industry" and "household".
Back then, reducing the temperature in closed spaces is considered a promising way to save energy. Both house owners and renters were advised to limit room temperature to 20°C. Those who tend to get cold quickly are advised to choose warmer garments. Heaters should be turned off during nighttime and vacation homes only warmed up when actually present - in general, cooling things down was the guiding principle.
Who doesn’t remember the acrid stench of the bulky heaters in the basement, especially when oil had leaked? Therefore, in 1976, prevention by regularly maintaining heating systems was recommended. In addition, improved insulation, small windows and avoiding large spaces should be considered in terms of construction.
The car should stay in the garage. Instead, Mr. and Mrs. Smith are encouraged to walk or, alternatively use public transportation. Aerobics and exercise are “en vogue” - those who climb stairs stay fit while sparing resources. If you’re not willing or able to refrain from driving your car, you shouldn't go faster than 100 km/h on the highway or 50 km/h in the city. Furthermore, the benefits of intelligent driving are promoted; driving at a moderate speed while looking ahead benefits the environment and can help prevent accidents.
After the Second World War, owning a car symbolized wealth, progress and independence. Thereafter, this narrative was rendered outdated. “Less is more” was the new motto by which individuals were guided by when purchasing a new car. That meant replacing old vehicles with lighter and smaller ones. And finally, private mobility could be improved by better planning trips and pooling car space, an entirely new idea at the time!
The avoidance of energy loss is central here. If possible, emitted heat should be captured and made available for the next working steps. In other words, closed circuits should be ensured by improved technologies. In addition, adequate calibration of machines can prevent the waste of electricity. Smarter logistics and shorter transportation routes also promise electricity savings.
Electronic devices should only be plugged in when in use, and wherever possible, covered to prevent heat from escaping. Showering is the preferable option to bathing. Those who insist on soaking in a tub should do so in pairs.
Today’s Energy Consumption
45 years have passed since the publication of this magazine. Much has changed for the worse in terms of energy production and consumption, but this period has also brought about favourable improvements. In 1976, who would have dreamt of running their vacuum cleaner with solar energy, moving their car with an electric engine, or controlling heating with a smartphone? At the time, the debate of saving electricity failed to differentiate between the problem of energy efficiency and that of CO2 emissions and neglected certain issues altogether. For example, the poor productivity of nuclear power plants (only about one-third of the energy produced was converted into electricity) was not contrasted by individual contributions at any point in the article.
Today we’re smarter. In the aftermath of an accident on a nuclear plant in Fukushima, Switzerland decided to phase out atomic power in stages. Existing power plants may remain; building new plants after 2011 is prohibited. In Switzerland, we have come to realize that there’s no suitable solution to safely dispose of radioactive waste. Therefore, the operation of nuclear power plants is deemed unsafe, far too expensive and thus uneconomic.
Only seven years later, the Swiss people voted in favor of a revised Federal Energy Act (2018). Several initiatives and action plans were agreed on as part of the Energy Strategy 2050. Their main objective is to promote a gradual transformation from fossil fuels to renewable energies. The law introduces specific CO2 limits for motor vehicles and new buildings. Furthermore, the newly adopted building program provides incentives for homeowners to renovate old buildings in a more energy-efficient manner. For example, those who replace their old oil-fired heating systems with heat pumps and upgrade the insulation of their buildings are eligible for tax deductibles.