Look at the progress in the past 50 years and yet why does no one notice?

The UK is consuming less energy than it did in 1965. Andrew Warren, a regular contributor to EiD, in a column for the September issue of Energy in Buildings and Industry asks why there is still a widespread belief that economic development and increased energy use go hand in hand.


The silent revolution in energy use

Over the past fifty years, our way of life in Britain has changed enormously. The number of cars on the road has practically doubled, the number of gadgets in each home has multiplied exponentially, goods once luxuries are now commonplace.

Since 1965 the wealth of our country, as measured by Gross Domestic Produce (GDP), has increased in real terms by around 270 per cent. In other words, we are each of us on average approaching three times better off in material terms than our counterparts were back then.

In half a century, everything has changed. Apart from one thing. In today’s economy, we use significantly less energy than we did way back in 1965.

Across the UK economy, primary energy consumption in 2014 was 187.9m tonnes of oil equivalent (mtoe). Back in 1965 the equivalent figure in 1965 was 196.8mtoe.

All this material progress has been achieved simultaneously with a complete revolution in the way we use fuel. It is a quite extraordinary turn around which seems to have escaped the attention of the vast majority of people – even those in positions of considerable influence and authority upon us.

That includes those delightfully described as the “chattering classes”- the opinion forming “commentariat” to be found in the media, in Parliament, among senior civil servants, even among some of those who claim to be energy specialists.

Amazingly, a conventional presumption remains that increases in GDP are broadly mirrored by increased in fuel usage. That is why the UK government is continuing to base some of its long-term forecasting upon the quaint belief that electricity consumption will double (in some scenarios, treble) during the first half of this century.

In contrast we already know that, just since 2005, overall energy use has already fallen by 18 per cent. Just in the past year, even while GDP grew by 2.8 per cent, energy sales fell by 6.6 per cent.

I know that such long-term trends come as absolutely no surprise to anybody whose day job it is to manage fuel bills for any half-competent business or institution. But equally I know that many carrying out such professional duties are frequently frustrated at the number of opportunities to “invest to save” still forgone.

When meeting with energy or facility managers, time and again I have been told about all kinds of thoroughly sensible energy-saving investments simply never made. The reasons are legion. They run from an absence of available capital via a lack of appropriately skilled personnel through to an unwillingness to bother.

Many government programmes designed to promote the more efficient use of energy have been introduced since 2000. Few have been persevered with for long enough to be truly effective; there seems to be a perpetual desire from new ministers, new bureaucrats, the moment they arrive in office, to start tinkering around, even with the acknowledged successes.

Worse. Just since May we have witnessed the wholesale abandonment (or sometimes, euphemistically, postponement) of all existing energy conservation programmes aimed at the residential sector – whether for existing or new homes. Inexplicably, we have seen the same treatment meted out to the commercial new building sector. And we have been told to expect a “rationalisation” this autumn of all schemes intended to stimulate greater investment levels throughout the non-residential sector, whether in process industry or the commercial sector.

We have also witnessed the willful destruction of the much-heralded new UK Energy Efficiency Deployment Office, trumpeted by Coalition Government ministers as their “number one priority”, even while similar deployment offices for the different forms of energy supply are strengthened.

Obviously we all live in hope (even if not much expectation) that these new Government policies promised for the medium term will prove to be even more effective. Because certainly in the short-term, the marketplace for installing many standard energy-saving measures is in a frightening downward spiral. The consequence may even be that, over the 2015/6 period, we will find a serious blip in our long-term trend towards using less and less energy to produce greater and greater prosperity.

But I take comfort from the fact that the International Energy Agency continues relentlessly to bill energy efficiency as the First Fuel. Its senior officials regularly publicise the fact that, in the last quarter of the twentieth century, improvements in energy efficiency (dubbed “negawatts”) contributed far more to developed world energy resources than gas, coal or oil. And they make the point that, despite this remarkable contribution, the potential to deliver far more by better energy management remains enormous. Energy efficiency clearly works: so why stop now?

Doubtless reactionary right-wing commentators will continue to smear such policies as “energy rationing”. Those who continue to interpret “no regulations” as “better regulations” will keep hampering progress. As will those who confuse extra energy consumption as a hallmark of a booming, rather than an inefficient, economy.

The publication of these historic statistics revealing that we now use rather less energy than in 1965 received almost no publicity at the time. A shame, because it permits those in High Places who still determinedly resist prioritising the First Fuel, a fig-leaf of respectability. A fig-leaf that can no longer be remotely justified.

3 thoughts on “Look at the progress in the past 50 years and yet why does no one notice?

  1. Thanks a lot for sheding light on the current situation in the UK.
    I agree with most of the arguments highlighted, especially the need for stability in the context to support energy efficiency investments.

    When comparing the level of energy consumption in 1965 and now, it would be useful to give some key figures: do you speak about the total primary or total final energy consumption?

    The UK has known a dramatic change in the structure of its economy between 1965 and 2015, that could be reflected by the change of the share of the industry in the total final energy consumption.

    To avoid criticism about your starting point, it would be very useful to give a bit more explanations about the reasons of the reductions in energy consumption (as they are not only due to energy efficiency gains).

  2. The answer is total final energy consumption. Whilst any detailed break down of energy usage and indeed energy intensity for the years around 1965 scarcely exists, recently the view is that at least two-thirds of industrial sector reductions are from improvements in energy intensity. But the main point of my article is simply to demonstrate that energy consumption growth is definitely no longer tied to expansion in wealth.
    Because there are very senior people in the UK who still believe that growth in one follows the other . For instance, just last week the Number 2 energy minister, Andrea Leadsom, placed a signed blog on her own Departmental website, arguing for more gas fracking, beginning with the justification that her role was to address “GROWING energy demand”!

    • Thanks for your reply. Then indeed there seems to be a big communication need about facts & figures !
      You can also argue that other countries (such as France in its recent law about energy transition) have adopted clear objectives of reductions in total final energy consumption: -20% in 2030 compared to 2012 (for total final energy consumption), and -30% in 2030 compared to 2012 for the primary energy consumption of fossil fuels.
      And one of the key general objectives of the same law is to “forster the development of a competitive and job-creating economy”.
      And I assume similar statements can be found in laws in other European countries (like Germany, Denmark, etc.).
      I don’t know if international comparisons can help for the UK context, but in case…

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