The United Kingdom took top rank in a new energy efficiency ranking of the world’s 12 major economies, according to a new study from the nonprofit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

The U.K. was followed closely by Germany, Italy and Japan, with the U.S. coming in ninth. The ACEEE didn’t mince words, noting that the U.S. has made "limited or little progress toward greater efficiency at the national level” in the past decade.

The rankings were determined by compiling scores across 27 distinct categories in four sectors: national efforts, buildings, industry and transportation. The U.K. had 67 out of 100 points, but the average score was just 54 out of 100, showing that each country has serious weaknesses.

The 12 economies represent more than 78 percent of global gross domestic product and 63 percent of global energy consumption.

“The U.K. and the leading economies of Europe are now well ahead of the United States when it comes to energy efficiency. This is significant because countries that use energy more efficiently require fewer resources to achieve the same goals, thus reducing costs, preserving valuable natural resources, and creating jobs,” Steven Nadel, executive director of ACEEE, said in a statement.

Other countries ranked as follows from second place to twelfth:  Germany, Italy, Japan, France, the European Union, Australia, and China (a three-way tie for sixth place), the U.S. at ninth, followed by Brazil, Canada and Russia.

For many countries, one bad score in a category dropped the ranking so significantly that gains in other areas could not make up for the loss. Australia had one of the highest scores in the category of national efforts, but did poorly in the transportation and industry sectors. No country received a free pass in the rankings. “The analysis also revealed that while some countries are clearly outperforming others,” the authors wrote, “the biggest story is how poorly all these economies are doing overall.”

For the U.S., transportation was the nail in the coffin, scoring a mere 5 points out of 23. The U.S. received zero points in four out of seven subcategories in transportation, including vehicle miles traveled per capita, passenger vehicle fuel economy, use of public transit and investment in rail transit.

The U.S. did rank strongly in one category, buildings, where it is tied for fourth place with Germany and the U.K. China won the buildings category, with Australia coming in second. China’s winning score came from its low energy use in commercial buildings and appliance and equipment standards.

While the U.S. also had a high score for appliance and equipment standards -- the highest score overall, in fact -- it lost points in residential energy use and building labeling. The ACEEE acknowledges that some of the scores are based on whether laws are on the books, and not if they’re enforced, which slightly skews the outcome.

There are some scores that seem unfair, such as miles traveled per person. The U.S. is a large country, one might argue, and Americans necessarily have to traverse long distances. However, the U.S. average miles traveled per person are more than twice that of most countries and 30 percent higher than Canada. For trips of less than one mile, 75 percent are made by car in America.

Overall, the study authors identified five areas that the U.S. could significantly improve to catch up to other major economies in the world of energy efficiency:

  • Invest in efficiency programs and R&D. The U.S. lags other industrialized country in its per person investment in energy efficiency programs and efficiency research and development. The good news, according to the study, is that stimulus spending has recently boosted investment in this area, and this is one area where smart grid can help make significant gains.
  • Establish a national energy efficiency target. A lack of federal mandate, or even vision, was a problem for the U.S. Although there are increasingly stringent national efficiency standards for individual devices, an overall target is missing to move the entire industry forward.
  • Generate electricity efficiency. The U.S. has not made enough use of combined heat and power and combined-cycle power plants, according to the study. The loss to inefficient distribution of electricity also cost more than $25 billion in 2010. Again, the smart grid and distribution automation can make huge gains in this area, but only if utilities are incentivized for efficiency, and not for selling more kilowatt-hours.
  • Increase economic output per unit of energy consumed. This figure has risen slowly in the past decade, but there have not been significant improvements, which is tied to the first point about investment in efficiency that can then be taken up across society.
  • Create financial incentives to encourage investment. There are some loan programs and tax credits for encouraging energy efficiency, but not enough, according to the authors. Many tax credits go to renewables, and not tried and true energy efficiency. By contrast, the U.K. is launching the Green Deal to fund basic energy efficiency across businesses and homes. It’s not sexy, but at a large scale, it makes a difference.


“The United States, once considered an innovative and competitive world leader, has progressed slowly, while countries such as the United Kingdom, German, Japan and China surge ahead,” the authors conclude. “The opportunities for improvement in the United States and worldwide are significant, and the need to rise to the challenge is serious.”