Better understanding Britain’s energy transition

Andrew Warren, chairman of the British Energy Efficiency Federation and a regular contributor to EiD, argues falling energy use should spark a reappraisal in the government’s future assumptions and policy priorities. The article first appeared on the Business Green website.

So much for ‘predict and provide’ – UK energy use keeps on falling

Last Thursday the government published the UK’s energy statistics for 2017. All the headlines concentrated upon the relentless swing away from electricity generated via fossil fuels, with the proportion delivered from renewable sources now at an unprecedented 30 per cent – and climbing.

But tucked away within the same set of statistics was confirmation that another trend, arguably of even greater importance in the battle against climate change, was continuing. Simply put, it is that the overall amount of fuel we consume is continuing to fall.

Primary energy consumption in the UK has now fallen by 19 per cent since the start of the century. Actual figures are 236,856 ktoe then, 192,126 ktoe now. This has happened even though our overall wealth as a nation has grown over that period by well over one-half.

Put simply, we do seem to have succeeded in decoupling growth in living standards from growth in energy consumption. That in turn has meant there has been far less need to produce or purchase energy – of all kinds.

This has had an enormous impact upon decreasing the amount of both greenhouse gases and other ecological problems like land take related to fuel provision. After all, the most environmentally friendly form of energy is always the energy you don’t use in the first place.

Electricity demand keeps dropping

Overall electricity consumption continues to fall. Consumption fell by over 15 per cent between 2005 and 2015. It went down, again, by one per cent between 2016 and 2017. This means that we are now using less electricity than we were, say, in the mid 1990s.

According to government forecasts at the time of the last Energy White Paper in 2006, the Paper which reinvented the need for 10 new nuclear fission power stations, we should by now be consuming approaching 30 per cent more electricity than we actually are.

Current official consumption forecasts, used also to justify the £14bn ‘Smart’ Meter campaign, are predicated on similar electricity growth figures suddenly reappearing during the 2020s. It seems that there are still some civil servants who cannot get into their heads that ‘predict and provide’ is a moribund concept.

Buildings are the biggest energy users

Meanwhile, where have these real life savings been made? The answer is: mostly in the buildings sector, now responsible for 43 per cent of current energy usage.

Last year alone, total consumption in the ever-growing services sector fell by 1.4 per cent. This sector is dominated by the commercial sector (67 per cent of services), the public sector (26 per cent) and agriculture (at seven per cent). Between them, they are responsible for 15 per cent of current energy usage. During this century the amount of fuel consumed in this sector has fallen by 7.4 per cent. Even though the amount of retail space has increased by 9.6 per cent, of office space by 13 per cent.

Our homes are responsible for almost 28 per cent of total consumption. Final energy consumption in the residential sector fell by 3.7 per cent overall last year. Average gas consumption went down by 5.5 per cent to 12.909 kWh per home. Average electricity consumption fell by 2.4 per cent to 3,828 kWh per home.

Consumption per household fell 4.7 per cent, and fell by 3.2 per cent on a per person basis. Average households are getting ever smaller in size. Whilst the UK population has increased by only 19 per cent since 1970, the number of households has practically doubled over the same period.

Keeping home fires burning less

Because it is the dominant heating fuel, there is well over three times as much gas used in the average home as there is electricity. Gas consumption has fallen by approaching one-third since 2005, largely owing to requirements to replace malfunctioning boilers with more efficient condensing ones. But there are still 40 per cent of elderly inefficient boilers, staggering on. Replacing them will cut gas sales even more.

Programmes prevalent during the first decade of the century to put insulation in homes have largely vanished – the Committee on Climate Change recorded a 95 per cent drop in insulation installations. But as we stand, already 83 per cent of homes have some double glazing; 69 per cent of homes with cavity walls have had those insulated; and 68 per cent of homes have had 125mm or more of insulation placed in their lofts – at least some of which is still in place.

In contrast, less than nine per cent of those homes with solid walls have ever had those insulated: there remain a further eight million still without any insulation. Systematically helping those occupiers will again drive down gas consumption further.

Almost three-quarters of electricity usage in homes comes from appliances and lighting. There have been enormous improvements – practically all driven by the European Union – in the minimum energy standards required for most white and brown consumer goods. Again, this is a key reason why, despite the increase in electronic gadgets, overall electricity consumption in homes keeps falling.

Energy intensity in industry and transport

The industry sector is still responsible for 17 per cent of overall energy usage – so still slightly larger than the services sector (although in 1970 it was over twice as important). Here the key issue is to ensure that the amount of energy input to the value of output – described as ‘energy intensity’ – keeps falling. It has improved by 25 per cent since 2000, and fell by a further 0.4 per cent last year too.

Transport is responsible for 40 per cent of energy usage. The balance is that 73 per cent of transport-related energy is burnt in motor vehicles, two per cent each via rail and water transport – and an ever-growing proportion (now 24 per cent) in air planes. Air travel’s energy usage is 90 per cent international, with just five per cent each for domestic flights and flights for military purposes.

Whilst transport’s overall consumption has fallen by 7.2 per cent since 2000, this has been thanks to significant improvements in mileage per gallon largely due to the swing away from petrol towards diesel fuels. This is a swing that during 2018 has demonstrably reversed. Next year’s road transport figures may not be so kind.

Critically, around two-thirds of transport energy usage is for personal rather than business reasons. And as we stand, electric vehicles are responsible for just 15 ktoe out of the transport sector’s massive total of 56,470 ktoe.

A consistent pattern

Overall the pattern is consistent. Year on year better energy management of all types, combined with stronger regulations, are together ensuring that the trend for lower and lower overall energy consumption figures keeps on improving.

There is though no cause for complacency. The complete absence of any purposeful strategy for energy saving from the UK government ever since 2015, coupled with the wanton abolition of its Energy Efficiency Deployment Office, has meant that there are few new initiatives yet in the pipeline to ensure that the trend continues. Over recent weeks the Prime Minister herself has been making specific interventions to galvanise the building sector into far stronger commitments towards better energy efficiency, particularly in existing buildings. A plethora of consultations, both formal and informal, are starting to emerge.

Perhaps there is a realisation that, without really trying, the UK has succeeded in producing a strong empirical record on reducing energy wastage. It makes one conscious about how much more could be achieved with just a little more effort and focus. As the International Energy Agency endlessly repeats, energy efficiency needs to be everyone’s number one policy priority.

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