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Time to wake up to the reality

Amazement, shock and concern greeted the news that energy use has declined over the last 50 years. But will the Government finally catch on to the benefits of energy efficiency?

In September, Energy in Buildings & Industry’s Warren Report was headlined “The Silent Revolution in UK Energy Use”. In it, I revealed that over the past fifty years UK GDP wealth has increased by almost threefold while at the same time overall energy consumption across the economy has actually fallen (by about 5 per cent).

The level of interest in this simple juxtaposition of two trends, heading in opposite directions, was astonishing. I have been writing monthly columns on energy for over 30 years but I can honestly report that never before has a single column of mine stimulated quite so much interest.

The reactions have ranged from amazement: “Why didn’t I know this before?” to disbelief “Are you really interpreting these statistics right”? from concern that such revelations may cause complacency “every possible saving measure has been made,” to shock that nobody in public life seems to have recognised what was happening “the Government must surely now treat energy saving as the First Fuel”.

For most people, the reaction was one of great positivity: “Why didn’t I know this before?” The chief executive of one of the largest energy consultancies told me that they would be tweeting and blogging the welcome news everywhere. The head of a large charity promised to send links to the column far and wide as did the secretary of one of the main all party energy groups in parliament.

Correct interpretation?

One of the first challenges: “Are you really interpreting these statistics right”? came from a veteran BBC correspondent. Concentrating on the residential sector, if domestic electricity sales were lower today than in 1997, and home gas consumption had returned to 1984 levels, then doesn’t that simply mean that fuel poverty is on the increase? A leading Oxford University academic raised the same point.

I accept fuel poverty is sadly on the increase. And that some households do deliberately try to eliminate heating, cooking and lighting usage in consequence. But that still affects, thank heavens, a relative minority. And some of these run up high fuel bills, forced instead to reduce other expenditure.

What has revolutionised consumption patterns for heating is a combination of better insulation, better glazing, more efficient boilers. In 1984 only half households had central heating, now practically all do, the majority using super efficient condensing boilers. Despite the Internet and a proliferation of gadgets, even appliance electricity consumption has fallen back during this century. Sales of electricity for domestic lighting are now 25 per cent lower than 30 years ago.

Others, like Geoff Turnley, argue that the reason for lower fuel consumption is not energy efficiency, but the “collapse of major manufacturing and steel production industries”. Not so.

The annual UK Digest of Energy Statistics gives the clear lie to this. Already this century, industrial energy sector final energy consumption has fallen 11.3 per cent, from 35.5 to 24.2m tons of oil equivalent. Of which two-thirds of the reduction can be attributed directly to improvements in energy intensity, rather than reductions in output. Looking back further, iron and steel output, far from collapsing, is at the same level as in 1980. It is simply being produced far more efficiently. And the chemical industry’s overall output has doubled since 1970, but its energy usage has scarcely altered.

A long-standing local government figure expressed concern that, if “every possible saving measure has been made”, some with a goodish energy efficiency record, like the retail sector, may argue there is nothing left to be done. I appreciate that concern: I have heard such arguments used before. I recall when in 2010 I was appointed to the Prime Minister’s taskforce to cut Whitehall energy usage by 10 per cent within the year, some government departments with reasonable track records tried that excuse. They got no truck from us (and particularly not from the P.M!). And, lo and behold, every Department did deliver that target with some ease.

Saving 20 per cent

It has long been a truism that there is invariably an extra 20 per cent of current energy usage that can be saved, just about anywhere.

Finally, a whole swathe of people concluded that, given this evidence, “the Government must surely now treat energy saving as the First Fuel”. Certainly that was the reaction of the head of a key trade association. A former senior civil servant mused as to whether the constant chopping and changing of relevant government policies had meant that consumption was higher than it need be, and whether fear of being seen as being too heavy handed had deterred the introduction of obvious regulatory measures – doubtless like “consequential improvements” for the building sector.

But let the final word go to the only one of my correspondents who I asked to quote by name: Sir Jonathon Porritt, Britain’s best-known environmentalist. He asked me the question: “why is yours just about the only voice making this point? For fifty years, energy efficiency has led the most successful revolution in the entire energy market. Why are our political leaders still so silent about it?”

Perhaps from now on, they won’t be. Only last month the Mail on Sunday headline read: “New power stations? We’ll just use less electricity- Britain’s new energy secretary to outline her plans.”

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