Green groups were “puzzled” when Britain claimed gold when ACEEE released its energy efficiency table for the world's 12 largest economies on 12 July.
But the shock may have been greater in the offices of Eurostat, the European statistical agency.
The ACEEE report gave the United Kingdom four out of four possible points for the efficiency of thermal power plants, while France scored one.
This contradicts Eurostat’s 2011 report (based on 2009 data) that rates the UK's thermal efficiency of power stations at just 44.4%, compared to 56% for France, marking the continuation of a relatively poor energy-saving trend in the UK dating from the 2005-2009 period.
Overall, ACEEE gave the UK 67 out of a possible 100 efficiency points. Germany came second, with 66 points, followed by Italy with 63 points, Japan with 62 and France with 60.
Russia was at the bottom (36 points), while China scored as many points as the EU average (56). The United States, meanwhile "disappointed" the researchers of this study, achieving only 47 points.
ACEEE rejected suggestions that the ranking was inaccurate, telling EurActiv that it was designed to avoid favouring one country over another and that "we did not know the outcome of the rankings before we began".
"Frankly, many of us were surprised by the results," said Sara Hayes, senior policy and utilities associate at ACEEE.
'Confusing' measurement of energy efficiency
ACEEE researchers were not the only ones to be surprised. In fact, the findings were surprising to all Brussels energy efficiency experts contacted by EurActiv.
“Why is the UK so much better than France?” said Brook Riley of Friends of the Earth Europe.
Green groups argue that the ACEEE ranking lacks clarity and accuracy and claimed the measurement system was "confusing". It only looked at 12 countries - four of which were in Europe - and counted the rest of the EU as a fifth country. The remaining seven nations included in the study were the US, Canada, Brazil, Australia, Japan, Russia, and China.
“In that context, it shouldn’t be surprising that the four separate European countries reviewed were in the top 5,” along with Japan, said Samuel Flückiger of the European Climate Foundation. “Would they have included countries like Denmark or Sweden, they would definitely have outperformed" the UK, he told EurActiv.
The European Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ECEEE) agreed. “The UK may very well be the most energy efficient country in their ranking, but this does not mean it is the most energy-efficient country in Europe,” said Nils Borg, the organisation’s executive director.
“I would easily put Denmark higher, but they don't appear to be included at all.”
In fact, the ACEEE study used different categories to grade the 12 countries, including national efforts, buildings, industry and transportation.
These were then crunched into six to seven different sub-categories, such as energy productivity intensity, efficiency of thermal plants, industrial electricity generated by CHP (combined heat and power), and efficiency of residential buildings or of commercial buildings.
The UK's top mark is attributed to the emphasis that the ACEEE’s ratings put on industrial efficiency and cogeneration in which both heat and electricity are produced. But a July 2012 study published by the UK's Department for Energy and Climate Change shows that the country's policies on energy efficiency will only tap one-third of potential energy savings available by 2030.
Britain also benefited from the ACEEE’s tilt towards services rather than industrial manufacturing as an efficiency measure, giving it relatively low energy intensity, Erica Hope, of Climate Action Network Europe (CAN-E) said.
“A close look at the scores reveals that the UK measures up very badly on certain areas like residential buildings and public transport use,” Hope said.
And other elements of the ACEEE report appear questionable. “A puzzling thing I notice is that UK gets full marks for 'mandatory energy savings goals' whereas it was one of the only two EU countries that until now refused to indicate an energy-savings target in its National Reform Programmes. So unless ACEEE counts carbon targets as energy savings targets, I don't know where this comes from,” Ballu said.
A question of influence
Those familiar with the energy efficiency debate in Brussels believe the ACEEE report was intended for other purposes.
Riley, of Friends of the Earth Europe, said the report was trying to influence American policymakers towards adopting energy-efficient policies.
A well-ranked UK is more likely to influence American decision-makers than a well-ranked China, he argued. “You try to compare it to a country easier to relate to [and] it has the same language, similar foreign policy views and banking systems.”
Monica Frassoni, president of the European Alliance to Save Energy (EU-ASE), agreed that it was a “strong advocacy tool” for US lobbying.
ACEEE does not dispute this. "We absolutely have an interest in identifying where the US could improve its energy efficiency and we hope that the results of our research will highlight for policymakers, businesses, and consumers where energy efficiency can be improved," Hayes said.
ACEEE may even become involved in drafting the legislation it is pushing for. The group works with state and local officials to develop energy-efficiency strategies and in influencing federal policy.
ACEEE is funded by government agencies, corporations, private companies, foundations and many power utilities. Some of these companies - such as Johnson Controls, the utilities and Schneider Electric - sell energy efficiency services and complain about a lack of political signals.
Ironically, the UK is seen by many members of the European Parliament as one of the worst enemies of the EU's first energy savings law, the Energy Efficiency Directive, playing a double role behind the curtains.
Green MEP Claude Turmes told EurActiv that Britain weakened the directive, article by article, asking for reduced ambitions in exchange for London's cooperation on the bill. Turmes, the Parliament’s rapporteur on the legislation, said that the UK even convinced other member states to oppose the bill and ask for exemptions.
“The [UK government’s] Green Deal is more and more a smokescreen," Turmes said. "The ‘greenest government–ever’ is an impostor, they have no money and no ambition behind words.”