Understanding the dynamics in Britain’s energy consumption

Without really paying attention, many simply expect energy consumption to continue to grow. However, the energy transition truly is underway and it has for quite a while now. In an article for the February 2017 issue of Energy in Buildings and Industry, Andrew Warren, chairman of the British Energy Efficiency Federation, explains his party trick to reveal what is happening with changes in energy demand but what is not happening in people’s expectations.


Now it’s your turn to take the ten-year UK energy test

I have a little party trick I like to play. I play it mostly with the Great and the Good who run our Government, be they senior civil servants or ministers, or even Important Media Commentators.

I ask them, how much do you think consumption of energy has increased over the past decade? Inevitably the response is along the lines of “quite considerably”. The more astute do ask how much Gross Domestic Product has risen over the past ten years? And then conclude: “Take that same percentage figure, then add a bit”.

Whilst they are about it, many comment upon the enormous increase in gadgets powered by electricity. And the desire of households to bask in heating temperatures far higher than a generation ago.

When I reveal that overall energy consumption has actually declined by 16.2% over that period, the immediate reaction is all too frequently: “Are you sure?”

So I provide my source. It is Table 1.02 of the latest official statistics published by the Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) department just before Christmas.

This confirms that, in 2005, final energy consumption in the UK in 2005 was 159,676 ktoe. Whereas by 2015 the equivalent figure was just 137,430 ktoe.

With some fuels, the decline has been even greater. In 2005 we burnt 55,384 ktoe of natural gas. By 2015 consumption had plummeted to just 41, 707 ktoe.

That is a truly dramatic fall, of no less than 32.8%. Or to put it in true layman’s language, for every three therms of gas we were burning ten years ago, we are now consuming just two.

Even so, that didn’t stop the then energy minister (and now environment secretary) Andrea Leadsom posting a blog on the Departmental website in favour of gas fracking, In it she stated categorically that we were burning more and more gas each year as our economy grew. Somewhat ironically she had called her signed policy statement “An inconvenient truth”: an early example of the post-truth economy?

Doubtless one of the main reasons for this precipitate fall in gas sales was the decision taken by the then energy efficiency Minister, Lord Larry Whitty, to alter the building regulations in 2005 to mandate the installation of condensing boilers for both new build and replacement. Such boilers are around 30% more efficient than their predecessors. And over 10 million of these are now operating in British buildings.

Add to that the big promotional programmes to stimulate insulation being installed, which ran up until 2012 (but have subsequently been decimated), and you can swiftly see why gas consumption levels have , as one sales executive put it to me, “fallen off a cliff.”,

There is no good reason why this trend should not continue. There are still approaching 11 million homes on the gas network running gas-guzzling boilers. There are still some 10 million homes with grossly inadequate insulation. Still a majority without energy efficient glazing.

Around the same time as publishing these end-use statistics, the BEIS department was setting out ideas for how best to minimise energy wastage in the use of heat, predominantly in buildings. Transparently the answer is very obviously to build on, in some cases return to, the programmes being run between 2005 and 2012

It is not just in the gas market where consumers have benefitted from improved efficiency. Take electricity usage.

In 2005 we consumed 29,981 ktoe of electricity. During 2015 that fell to 26,031 ktoe. A drop of 15.2% in electricity consumption.

Throughout the past decade, every winter voices of alarm have shouted: the lights are going to go out unless we have more power available. Every winter gullible tabloids have run the same headlines, emphasising the ever-increasing demand for fuel.

In practice, one of the main drivers of falling electricity consumption – and why the lights have transparently not gone out – has been due to implementation of the European eco-design and energy labeling directives. The higher A to F energy standards set across Europe for electricity-consuming goods like washing machines and refrigerators, for vacuum cleaners and dishwashers, for televisions and telephones, have eliminated the worst energy performers, and pushed consumers towards far less wasteful artifacts.

And of course one of the main reasons the lights haven’t gone out was the decision taken on light bulbs.

There is a strain of populist opinion, voiced in some of the tabloid newspapers and in official UKIP policy, that one of their preferred outcomes from Brexit would be that the part of the Eco design directive that outlaws tungsten bulbs in most circumstances, should be reversed. Sadly under the arrangements currently proposed by the Prime Minister, this would be entirely feasible.

And other commercial interests, particularly those making items like energy inefficient vacuum cleaners or boilers, will doubtless be arguing that we should remove all energy standards as part of the bonfire of European red tape.

My party trick currently works. Consequently policy makers can see that the First Fuel (as the International Energy Agency correctly dubs energy efficiency) has contributed enormously so far in the 21st Century. Over ensuing years, it can contribute far more. But only just so long as doctrinaire, reactionary politics doesn’t deliberately hinder progress.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.