Coming to grips with the energy transition in Britain

Andrew Warren, in the July/August issue of Energy in Buildings & Industry magazine, argues that the gradual decline in energy use in the UK in the last ten years has been a triumph for energy efficiency. Current policy might begin to unravel the spectacular gains that have been made. Andrew is Chairman of the British Energy Efficiency Federation and a regular contributor to EiD.


Let the decline continue

Towards the end of last month, I was contacted by a senior official from another European country. Papers were being prepared for the International Energy Agency ministerial meeting on energy efficiency, held in Paris on June 30. A query was raised concerning some UK statistics I had featured in a column for Energy in Buildings & Industry.

I had written that in the 10 years from 2005, overall energy consumption in the UK fell by 16.2 per cent. Meanwhile, petrol consumption dropped by 13.1 per cent; electricity use went down by 15.2 per cent; and the amount of natural gas sold plummeted by 32.8 per cent.

Where on earth had these figures come from, I was asked? When I responded they had been published last December by the UK government department administering energy policy (now called BEIS), there was initial disbelief.

How could these trends be true? Nobody in the UK government ever drew attention to them. None of the national newspapers wrote about them. None of the major energy supply companies – including the renewable energy suppliers – spoke a word about them.

But the volume figures are there. In black and white. Revealing that, whereas ten years ago, the official Government forecasts had been that energy consumption over the ensuing decade would increase by around 15 per cent, possibly more. These had proved hopelessly inaccurate. In practice, there had been that 16.2 per cent drop. An error of well over 30 per cent.

Given such drops in volume sales, it is unsurprising that the Big Six energy suppliers have been seeking to restore profits by upping unit prices – to such an extent that both Conservative and Labour party election manifestos last month contained promises to introduce price caps per unit.

However, more recent statistics also published by the Business Department reveal just how much this welcome trend of declining consumption – welcome for consumers, if not for suppliers – is being deliberately allowed to whither away.

These official figures confirm just how comprehensively the marketplace for installing residential energy efficiency measures had dropped like a stone over the last three years.

They also reveal that, despite deliberately switching prioritisation only to those deemed to be living in fuel poverty, the precipitate decline in the overall level of energy efficiency activity is even leading to a serious reduction, by over two-thirds, in the absolute number of such impoverished households now being helped each month.

These alarming figures can be found among the detailed appendices contained within the BEIS Household Energy Efficiency National Statistics. The data contains details of the precise number of measures installed, as well as the number of homes improved, each month for the past four years.

The programmes covered predominantly involve the Energy Company Obligation (ECO), cashback schemes, and the Green Deal Finance Plans. During the three most recent months for which statistics are available, just 64,404 energy saving measures were installed across the UK. This can be contrasted wit the totals of 222,879 and 251,222 measures recorded as installed during the third and fourth quarters of 2013/14.

Amount the main measures reported, 35 per cent were cavity wall insulation, 24 per cent were loft insulation and 23 per cent were for boiler upgrades. Just seven per cent involved the installation of solid wall insulation – an investment that as recently as 2012 was deemed to be the government’s main priority for improving the energy efficiency of the housing stock.

The proportion of households benefiting from such improvements appears to be falling sharply. Whereas in March 2014 just fewer than 80,000 homes were improved, three years later the equivalent figure is down to only 14,700 – a drop of over 80 per cent.

Even the modest commitment in the Conservative’s winning 2015 manifesto – promising to install energy efficiency measures in 200,000 homes per year – was nowhere near being fulfilled. At the time, this ambition had been derided as seeking less than half the rate of business activity achieved in 2012. No such ambition now exists.

Depressingly, even though government attention re the English residential sector is being given almost exclusively to seeking to address fuel poverty, the number of households being reached under the official “affordable warmth” scheme has dropped from an average of 37,000 per month towards the end of 2013, to just 9,597 homes during February 2017.

At this rate, it will be well beyond the end of the 21st century before all homes deemed now to be in fuel poverty will be improved. No wonder that the legal commitment, made under the Warm Homes & Energy Conservation Act 2000, to eliminate fuel poverty in England by 2016, had to be quietly repealed by the Conservative-led government.

It is only recently that detailed quarterly statistics on domestic energy efficiency schemes have been made available. It should be noted that, had the numbers of energy conservation installations been recorded in such detail in earlier years like 2011 and 2012, these alarming percentage declines would certainly have been even larger.

It remains to be seen whether the energy consumption reduction trend, created in the initial years of this century, and so welcomed by everyone concerned with limiting greenhouse gas emissions, is still continuing.

As a result of the current almost deliberate policy neglect, coupled with the failure to highlight past demand reduction successes, the UK is covertly linking itself with the Trump mantra, that a growing economy must automatically mean growing energy consumption. False views, indeed.


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