Columnists: Andrew Warren, British Energy Efficiency Federation

Published on: 17 Apr 2014

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 reevaluation 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

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.

Further information
Andrew Warren is director of the Association for the Conservation of Energy

The views expressed in this column are those of the columnist and do not necessarily reflect the views of eceee or any of its members.

Other columns by Andrew Warren