A growing economy must not automatically mean growing energy consumption

Andrew Warren, a regular contributor to EiD and a former special advisor to the House of Commons select committee on the environment, takes a look at the latest figures on UK domestic energy efficiency improvements, and finds deliberately weakened policies have led to plummeting installation rates. What are your views?


The sad and under-reported tale of UK energy efficiency gains and neglect

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

In May 2017 I had written that, in the 10 years from 2006, 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 told them they had been published the previous December by the UK government department administering energy policy (the then quite recently launched Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy or BEIS), there was initial disbelief.

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

But the volume figures are there. In black and white. Revealing that, whereas 10 years ago, the official government forecast had been that energy consumption over the ensuing decade would increase by around 15 per cent, possibly more, those projections could now be seen to have been hopelessly inaccurate. In practice, there had been that 16.2 per cent drop. An error of well over 30 percentage points.

Earlier this year researchers from Carbon Brief examined a different but complementary set of statistics regarding year-on-year power generation. They established that power generators had supplied less electricity in the previous year than at any time since 1994. This was achieved “despite rising population numbers and decades of economic growth since the early nineties”. The UK population has grown over 10 per cent over the period, and yet power use kept falling.

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 in the 2017 general election contained promises to introduce price caps per unit.

However, more recent statistics also published by BEIS 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 has dropped like a stone over the last five years.

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, four years later the equivalent figure was down to just 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 when the 2017 election was called. 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 readily 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 about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, is still continuing.

Or whether as a result of the current 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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