What is the Difference Between Energy Efficiency and Energy Conservation?

Hand holding the world energy efficiency

We’re often asked, what is the difference between energy efficiency and energy conservation? Aren’t they the same? No. There is a subtle but important difference.  What’s more, you can have both at the same time. Here is an explanation.

What is energy efficiency?

When an energy product’s design is improved so that it uses a percentage less energy than the current  design, then the newer model is energy efficient. The easiest explanation is using a lightbulb.

An energy efficient lightbulb would be the compact fluorescent (CFC) lightbulb compared to the incandescent light bulb that was patented by Canadians Henry Woodward and Mathew Evans in 1874, and successfully commercialized a few years later by Thomas Edison that has been used for more than one hundred years. The CFC lightbulb is more energy efficient than the incandescent lightbulb because it uses less energy for the same lighting.  An LED lightbulb is more energy efficient than both of them because it uses less energy than both for the same lighting. But, all are lightbulbs.

What is energy conservation?

Energy conservation is the best use of energy since it is not used until needed. It requires a more comprehensive approach to reducing the use of energy. Conserving treats energy as something precious, and therefore, is not wasted. It takes energy to make energy at a huge environmental cost that is not factored into the price when using energy.

When energy is not used, it also saves governments money because it reduces the need to spend on new energy generating stations. Consider that about 70% of energy that is generated is lost through inefficiencies and poor design before it is used by the end-user. Energy conservation is more than improving the efficiency of a lightbulb. Simply put, energy conservation uses energy only when needed.

Electrical engineers favour energy conservation because it doesn’t strain the electrical grid. Their main goal is to avoid that one Watt above peak demand that breaks the grid, resulting in a rolling black-out, or a power outage.  

With energy conservation, the lightbulb is turned on when needed, and turned off when no longer needed. Having a timer on the lightbulb would be an energy conservation feature. Energy conservation is unrelated to the energy efficiency of the lightbulb, but they can work together.

How is energy conservation achieved? Better design and a cultural shift. Designers can use passive elements such as the location of windows to let in natural light to delay turning o the lightbulb. Better space and material design will minimize energy needs over the life of the built space. Energy conservation design elements are often not included when the cost of energy is cheap as they are considered a waste of money. 

Price signals affects people’s purchasing behaviour, and having higher energy prices encourages energy conservation and it also encourages investments in innovations. When the cost of energy gets expensive, consumers will turn off their appliances and devices when not needed. Leaving appliances and devices plugged in but turned off still uses energy.  This phantom power, or standby power, adds 10% or more to a hydro bill, according to the Independent Electricity System Operator of Ontario (IESO), which is a significant convenience cost.  Using a power bar would be a conservation measure.

Earlier this year, Alberta experienced an extended cold snap that strained their infrastructures. On 12 January 2024, there were 38 of Alberta’s all-time cold records broken with the coldest temperatures ranging from -40 to -50 degrees C, excluding the windchill.  To prevent a rolling or complete power outage, the  Alberta operator, AESO, sent an emergency alert message to all cellphones, and social media platforms asking Albertans to “immediately limit their electricity use to essential needs only.  Turn off unnecessary lights and appliances. Minimize the use of space eaters. Delay the use of major power appliances. Delay charging electric vehicles and plugging in block heaters.”

Fortunately, enough Albertans responded immediately to the emergency request because a power outage was averted. It was helpful that the message told consumers what to do in a hurry: to turn off lights, and appliances; minimize using space heaters; and delay charging EVs and using block heaters. These are all big energy users. Any appliance that has a split-phase plug like the ones used for dryers, ovens, and EVs use a lot of energy, but intermittently. Other big energy users are those that use energy consistently over a period of time, or continuously like the fridge.

Energy efficiency and energy conservation are both needed, but it is energy conservation that will transform our relationship with energy so that we use less of it when needed because it also includes a cultural shift.

Although Alberta averted a power outage thanks to a band-aid solution, it is not a sustainable action if these extreme events will happen more regularly, which is likely due to the vulnerabilities of the old infrastructures that are already strained past their capacity.  According to Electricity Canada, most electricity operators have no long term plan to make their systems resilient as it is not mandated, and there is no funding or incentive to invest in the transition to a sustainable decentralized model.

It is energy conservation that will make our sources of energy more resilient and reliable to extreme climate events that will surely come. When we switch to conserving energy, it will foster innovation and improvements to our infrastructures so that they meet the needs of the twenty-first century.  This hasn’t happened yet, even though the technology is already available, but the sooner we make the switch, the better it will be for us, and the planet.

Sharolyn Mathieu Vettese 


SMV Energy Solutions 

SMV Energy Solutions provides simple smart solutions that conserve energy


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