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andreweibi2013

It’s official. Energy consumption in the UK is on the way down

Here is a simple test for everybody. By how much has UK energy consumption already increased during this century? Actually, this isn’t just a question for generalists. I have been regularly trying it out on energy specialists in companies, in trade bodies. Even among the senior civil service. The answer given varies. But almost without exception, the response is that consumption has gone up. Sometimes by 5 per cent, sometimes 10 per cent, sometimes 20 per cent or more.

I then ask: how much do you think the country’s wealth has increased over the same period? And when I tell people that – even despite the recession – Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has risen by no less than 58 per cent between 2000 and 2012, I instantly get a re-evaluation of how much energy consumption has grown.

“Ah well, in that case, we are probably talking about a similarly high figure for energy usage. Not 20 per cent, but 40 per cent. Even 50 per cent.”

The monologue continues: “Thinking about it, we have had this vast expansion of electrical appliances, both at home and at work. And there has been an exponential growth in web energy use. Think of all the servers that are around now, but weren’t then. It must have grown a lot.”

Energy shortages

Following the logic along, “So quite possibly energy usage has gone up way over the 58 per cent that GDP has during this century. Is that what you are hinting? Gosh, you can see why the media are getting so hyped up about imminent energy shortages.”  And then, pausing for breath, my respondent asks: “So, by how much more than GDP levels has energy consumption soared?”

I pause for effect. The answer is that it hasn’t. “You mean, overall energy consumption hasn’t gone up at all throughout the entire period? That is quite extraordinary. ” Suitably smugly, I then reply that what is occurring with energy usage is really far more extraordinary than that. It hasn’t just not grown since the 20th century concluded. It has actually declined. And not just by a tiny amount.

Actual final energy consumption in 2012 was 12 per cent lower than it was in the year 2000. The total amounts, according to the latest “Energy Consumption in the UK” almanac published by the Department of Energy and Climate Change, are respectively 159 and 140m tonnes of oil equivalent.

In the immortal words ascribed to Sir Michael Caine, not many people know this. Not many people have yet appreciated the significance of the undeniable fact that the historical link, between growth in national wealth and growth in national energy consumption, has completely evaporated.

It would appear this ignorance even applies to those in the same Department of State that provides these very telling statistics. Only recently an article appeared under the byline of Edward Davey, the Secretary of State, stating that his Department still believes that electricity consumption is set to double between now and 2050. Meanwhile his opposite number in Germany is working on the basis of a 25 per cent drop in electricity consumption by 2050.

Mr. Davey is of course right to point out that electricity is expected to take a larger share of the overall energy market than the 19.4 per cent it now enjoys (up from 17.8 per cent in 2000). But even still there have already been some massive changes in the way in which electricity is used.

Between 2000 and 2012, per capita consumption of electricity in the UK fell by around 10 per cent. In other words, each and every one of us on average no longer has a need for 1 in 10 of the kilowatt-hours we were merrily burning at the time of the Millennium.

Unsung statistics

So, why is it that all we ever read about is the dangers of the “lights going out”? Of course none of us is ever going to hear these remarkable consumption figures publicised by the multitude of publicists whose job is it is to hype the need for massive new subsidies for massive new power stations. Nor, if I am honest, does it make anything like as good a headline.

But the fact remains that, without any headlines, we have succeeded in increasing our wealth substantially while reducing significantly our overall energy consumption. Because average fuel bills have tripled during this period, some of the reductions in the low-income household sector may be a case of people being priced out of buying sufficient warmth. But I don’t think that is true for companies, whether industrial or commercial, else we wouldn’t have managed 58 per cent GDP growth. Nor is it valid, I am glad to say, for the vast majority of households.

What higher fuel bills may well have stimulated is a greater willingness to cut out unnecessary fuel usage. Couple that with judicious stimuli programmes (Climate Change Agreements, the Carbon Reduction Commitment, EEC and CERT for households, banning the most energy inefficient products, upping building regulation standards). And we see the first results of what can only be described as a Virtuous Circle. Something that, eventually, even DECC’s forward planning must surely start to acknowledge.

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Comments (12)

  • Avatar

    Alan Aldridge

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    Excellent figures, good news – I would have guessed wrongly!

    The prices of goods and services are not directly related to energy consumption yet some of the Government programmes have related site or organisation specific turnover to energy consumption. In my opinion this is a false comparison.

    Example: over the last few years petrol prices have risen, say 30% over the last 5 years. A petrol station may sell the same litres, may use the same energy but with a turnover 30% up will appear more to be more energy efficient i.e. turnover/kWH.

    Whilst it is valid, within limits, to look at the national position GDP/kWH, it is NOT valid to rate individual businesses or sites on the basis of turnover. For accurate performance indicators and indeed to manage energy use, it is necessary to find appropriate activity indicators e.g. hotel: beds occupied, meals served.

    Even so, it’s a welcome if surprising result.

    Reply

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      Andrew Warren

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      Alan
      Very good to hear from you, and thank you for these constructive comments.
      Andrew

      Reply

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    Peter Wiltshire

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    Good news indeed Andrew….but….

    I feel that I know the reason, and this may not be quite such good news. The dramatic rise in energy prices over this period have forced some energy intensive businesses to scale back production and change their emphasis to activities with lower energy overheads. Some energy intensive industries such as steel making have virtually disappeared in the UK.

    Whilst most people know me for running a medium sized energy consultancy, working with business and industry. I also spend some time with a Community Interest Company which works with the fuel poor. In this role I meet several people who cannot afford to heat their homes at all, this is not unusual in 2014, but would have been unheard of in 2000.

    It is very good news Andrew, but there is a cost. !

    Reply

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      Andrew Warren

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      Peter
      You make a very fair point about the. number of households who may be under heating as a result of higher fuel prices. – a reality I did seek to acknowledge in my article. But the official statistics do make clear that industry is most definitely becoming more and more energy efficient. It is genuinely impressive that we have enjoyed such a significant increase in GDP whilst reducing consumption so considerably. I only wish more commentators acknowledged this remarkable trend.
      Andrew Warren

      Reply

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    Darryl Croft

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    @Peter

    I think you’ll find that domestic consumption has reduced as well Peter. Andrew/ACE will have the figures. So not just due to deindustrialisation.

    Reply

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      Andrew Warren

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      You at absolutely right, Darryl. Would that everybody at DECC was as clear sighted.
      Andrew

      Reply

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    Jean Aldous

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    Any reductions in energy use must be welcomed but we should bear in mind that these are from a very high base. Former UK energy use was described as a ‘profligate waste of energy’ by one government advisor. DECC’s ‘Energy Consumption in the UK (2013)’ shows little change since the 1970s. Although there have been improvements in energy efficiency by the motor industry over the past 40 years, this has been countered by increased use of road vehicles. There has been no change over to more efficient electric vehicles. Wealth should include quality of life and this has deteriorated for many walkers and cyclists. Over the period electricity use has increased by 65% since 1970 (see page 4). Energy use by industry has declined substantially, but we are importing many more goods so should accept some responsibility for the energy used. On the contrary, the consumption of imported goods is counted as increased wealth. A concerted effort is needed to generate more of our electricity and heat on site, using waste and hydrogen obtained at times of low demand from intermittent renewable energy.

    Reply

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      Andrew Warren

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      Dear Jean
      Please don’t think I am complacent about the levels of profligacy in the UK. A quick glance at some of my other articles on this website ought to persuade you of that! But I am seeking to counter the kind of unthink to be heard all too often, when commentators assume that as a nation’s wealth increases, so automatically does its energy consumption. During the 21 st century in the UK, we are breaking this mould in a big way. And this undeniable achievement needs recording.
      Andrew Warren

      Reply

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      Andrew Warren

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      Thanks for commenting so favourably upon my article on your blog
      Andrew Warren

      Reply

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    John barwise

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    This is one of the best debates I’ve heard on the subject of energy consumption and long over due. Some great stats to illustrate how electricity consumption has changed – breaking the links with GDP. But there is something not quite right here. All the evidence suggests there is a link between GDP and greenhouse gas emissions. We are using more energy than before but not in the UK – much of our energy is consumed on our behalf by importers who incidentally are also belching out GHG on our behalf as well.

    Reply

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      Andrew Warren

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      Thank you, John, for these kind remarks which are much appreciated. I fully acknowledge the point you raise about how carbon intensive some imports are. But this short article was seeking to emphasise the one significant point- that per capita consumption of electricity has dropped by 10% since 2000, even at a time during which the number of electricity consuming targets and computers has increased exponentially.
      Andrew Warren

      Reply

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