The Science Speaks blog series offers a deep dive into science, technology, and innovation topics on the minds of the public. The series explains focal topics through relatable analogies and asks readers to consider key opportunities, explore avenues for advancing gender equity and equality, and answer the ultimate question: Why should we care?
I was first introduced to the superhero known as The Flash when everyone wanted to dress in his costume during a Halloween episode of The Big Bang Theory. A bit of googling taught me that while The Flash is known for his superhuman speed, he is also capable of generating electricity. In fact, I learned that The Flash converts to 100% pure energy if he moves too fast, and I became skeptical of this unrealistically high energy efficiency.
Energy efficiency means using less energy than typically required to complete a task or getting the most utility out of every unit of energy consumed—in other words, reducing energy waste. Energy-efficient processes do a better job of converting energy into desired outcomes, seeking to get as close as possible to 100% efficiency like The Flash. This has huge implications for women and girls, whose microenterprises and traditional roles and responsibilities often rely on inefficient or unreliable energy sources.
The benefits of energy efficiency span from people to planet. Individuals or businesses save money if they need less energy to operate, and at the national level, reliance on energy imports decreases. Because electricity is frequently generated by burning fossil fuels, which releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, improving energy efficiency reduces emissions and helps mitigate the climate crisis. Plus, energy-efficient appliances that decrease indoor air pollution and create well-lit areas improve the health and safety of women and girls.
Because The Flash’s superpowers are entirely fictional, creative approaches at the industry, community, and individual levels are needed to improve energy efficiency. For example, vehicle energy efficiency may be increased through electrification, aerodynamic design, or use of tires that minimize friction. (The Flash, who somehow experiences no friction when speeding about, could be a model for said tires.) Residential and commercial buildings can be designed to ensure that windows are well-sealed and attics well-insulated to prevent heat loss, while light-colored roofs and shade-bearing trees reduce cooling needs. Replacing old appliances or installing LED lights are effective strategies at the individual level.
Energy efficiency lessens energy usage by implementing technological advances to cut down on waste. Energy conservation, on the other hand, reduces energy consumption based on behavioral changes, and it has been suggested that women are more likely than men to adopt energy conservation practices. Energy conservation may involve biking to the grocery store, while energy efficiency could mean purchasing an electric vehicle to drive there. Energy conservation is The Flash going outdoors to speed-read a book on a sunny day, while energy efficiency is using The Flash’s own electricity to illuminate his reading room.
In locations where women and girls’ unreliable access to energy hinders domestic responsibilities, limits education, harms livelihoods, and threatens pregnancy and other health outcomes, energy efficiency strategies that lower energy spending may prove game-changing. In electrified rural areas, women and girls spend less time on traditional household responsibilities, making them more likely to be employed and finish primary education, respectively. Plus, energy sector sustainability improvements are creating new jobs, which could benefit women and other marginalized populations—but only if they can get in the door. Laws restrict women’s energy sector participation in over 20 countries, and even in the United States women accounted for only one quarter of energy efficiency workers in 2019.
One of the biggest barriers to achieving energy efficiency is the upfront cost, which may dissuade would-be users if they aren’t aware of long-term cost-savings and local incentive programs (or perhaps if they aren’t superhero fans). West Virginia , for instance, has helped residential and commercial property owners finance energy efficiency upgrades. In developing countries , striving for energy efficiency can simultaneously slow the growth of energy demands and address challenges like economic development and poverty reduction.
The U.S. Government is advancing energy policy and programs that aid in the pursuit of gender-responsive climate change mitigation. The State Department facilitates diplomatic engagement related to the global energy sector, including equitable energy sector job creation. Regional efforts, such as the Female Leaders in Energy career advancement initiative and Women in Energy Strategy pilot, both of which focus on Southeast Asia and the Pacific, are also underway. Other programs are building the leadership skills of women in energy , identifying roadblocks that prevent women’s entry and retention in the sector, and facilitating energy efficiency improvements.
While we may never reach The Flash’s perfect efficiency, options abound for decreasing energy usage and increasing energy access around the world. How could you improve the energy efficiency of your home?
About the Author: Aubrey R. Paris, Ph.D., is a contracted Gender, Climate & Innovation Policy Advisor in the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues (S/GWI). Dr. Paris received her Ph.D. in Chemistry and Materials Science from Princeton University and B.S. in Chemistry and Biology from Ursinus College.