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Energy use

Energy use and conservation in the United Kingdom

For Government policy, see Energy policy of the United Kingdom

Energy use and conservation in the United Kingdom has been receiving increased attention over recent years. Key factors behind this are the UK Government's commitment to reducing carbon emissions, the projected 'energy gap' in electricity generation, and the increasing reliance on imports to meet national energy needs.

Carbon dioxide emissions

Under the Kyoto protocol the UK Government committed to reducing the levels of carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases by 12.5% below 1990 levels by 2008 to 2012.

Based on a recommendation by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, the Government has also committed to cutting emissions by 20% by 2010, 60% by 2050, and 80% by 2100, compared to 1990 levels. These reductions were thought in 2000 to be those required to stabilise atmospheric carbon dioxide at 550 ppm (compared to current levels of 380ppm), although latest scientific opinion is that stabilisation at this level is likely to be insufficient to avoid dangerous climate change. Research shows that the world is heading for much higher than the 650ppm level.

The achievement of the first of these targets should have been made considerably easier due to an inadvertent reduction in emissions caused by the (cost driven) displacement of coal by natural gas in electricity generation. Compared to coal, gas produces around 30% less when burnt. Filling the electricity generation gap (see below) while cutting emission levels presents a significant challenge. emissions from electricity generation have already risen 15% since 1997, though were still 15.9% lower than 1990 levels.

It is currently expected that the reduction by 2010 will actually be in the 15-18% range, although the 20% target remains.

Future targets

In March 2007 the Government published a draft Climate Change Bill aimed at requiring a mandatory 60% cut in the UK's emissions by 2050 (compared to 1990 levels), with an intermediate target of between 26% and 32% by 2020.

A report by the University College London Environment Institute (commissioned by Channel 4 for heavily criticised Dispatches Great Global Warming Swindle programme) suggested that current government policies would achieve a reduction in greenhouse gasses of between 12 and 17% by 2020, compared to an implied target of up to 30%. The report states that the over-riding block to achieving 30% is that nearly all the government's targets are voluntary.

Past performance

The figures below are the annual figures for carbon dioxide emissions since 1990. They exclude carbon emissions from international aviation and international shipping, which together rose by 74.2% from 22.65 to 39.45 million tonnes of carbon dioxide between 1990 and 2004.

UK greenhouse gas emissions (million tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent)
Year Net CO2 Change* CH4 N2O HFCs PFCs SF6 Total Total Change*
(Domestic target)** (UK) (Kyoto target)***
1990 592.1 0.0% 103.4 63.6 11.4 0.4 1.0 771.9 770.3 0.0%
1991 598.9 1.1% 102.6 63.5 11.9 1.2 1.1 779.2 776.6 0.2%
1992 581.9 -1.7% 101.1 57.3 12.3 0.6 1.1 754.3 752.4 -2.9%
1993 567.0 -4.2% 98.0 52.8 13.0 0.5 1.2 732.5 731.7 -5.6%
1994 559.2 -5.6% 91.0 54.1 14.0 0.5 1.2 720.0 719.3 -7.2%
1995 549.6 -7.2% 90.1 52.8 15.5 0.5 1.2 709.7 709.0 -8.5%
1996 571.3 -3.5% 87.7 53.2 16.7 0.5 1.3 730.7 730.1 -5.8%
1997 548.4 -7.4% 82.8 54.6 19.2 0.4 1.2 706.6 706.4 -8.9%
1998 550.1 -7.1% 78.2 54.3 17.3 0.4 1.3 701.6 701.9 -9.5%
1999 540.8 -8.7% 72.9 44.0 10.9 0.4 1.4 670.4 670.9 -13.4%
2000 548.8 -7.3% 68.4 43.5 9.1 0.5 1.8 672.1 672.8 -13.2%
2001 559.6 -5.5% 62.4 41.4 9.7 0.4 1.4 674.9 675.9 -12.8%
2002 543.2 -8.3% 59.4 39.9 9.9 0.3 1.5 654.2 655.8 -15.4%
2003 555.1 -6.3% 53.4 39.6 10.2 0.3 1.3 659.9 661.5 -14.7%
2004 554.6 -6.3% 51.6 40.4 8.9 0.3 1.1 656.9 659.3 -15.0%
2005 554.2 -6.4% 49.3 39.6 9.2 0.4 1.1 653.8 656.2 -15.3%
*Change percentages are the figures originally published. All other figures are revised annually as improvements are made to the calculation methods, so the percentages shown do not necessarily align with the rest of the data.
**Domestic target is based on CO2 only. Baseline 592.1
***Kyoto target is based on all greenhouse gases. Baseline is 775.2. Kyoto total differs from the sum of the columns due to differences in definitions used, and the inclusion of emissions from UK Overseas Territories.
Note: Figures shown do not include any adjustment for the effect of the EU Emissions Trading Scheme.
Source: DEFRA, published 2007-01-31

Final energy consumption

During 2004, the total energy consumed in the UK was the equivalent to 161.1 million tonnes of oil (an increase of 9.37% compared to the equivalent of 147.3 million tonnes of oil used in 1990). This represented 67.6% of the total energy used; the other 32.4% was lost in converting or transmitting the energy, or was used by the energy industries themselves before it reached the consumers.

Final energy consumption was used by consumers in the following proportions:

  • Transport – 35.63% (33.00% in 1990)
  • Domestic – 30.23% (27.70% in 1990)
  • Industry – 21.17% (26.27% in 1990)
  • Services – 12.91% (13.03% in 1990)

Energy imports

With large coal reserves, and the extraction of North Sea oil and gas that started in the 1970s, until the 2000s the UK has been one of the few countries to have been largely self sufficient in energy, and indeed a net-exporter of oil and gas in recent decades.

Due to the decline in North Sea production, and the costs of mining and using coal cleanly, unless action is taken to reduce demand, it is expected that the UK will become a major importer of oil and gas by 2015. After becoming a net exporter of gas in 1997, the UK became a net importer again in 2004.

Electricity supply

With the development of the national grid, the switch to using electricity, UK electricity consumption increased by around 150% between the post war nationalisation of the industry in 1948 and the mid 1960s. During the 1960s growth slowed as the market became saturated.

Fuel sources

During the 1940s some 90% of the generating capacity was fired by coal, with oil providing most of the remainder.

The UK started to develop a nuclear generating capacity in the 1950s, with Calder Hall being connected to the grid on 27 August 1956. Though the production of weapons-grade plutonium was the main reason behind this particular power station, other civil stations followed, and 26% of the nation's electricity was generated from nuclear power at its peak in 1997.

Despite the flow of North Sea oil from the mid 1970s, oil fuelled generation remained relatively small and continued to decline.

Starting in 1993, and continuing through to the 1990s, a combination of factors lead to a so-called dash for gas, during which the use of coal was scaled back in favour of gas fuelled generation. This was sparked by the privatisation of the National Coal Board, British Gas, the Central Electricity Generating Board, the introduction of laws facilitating competition within the energy markets, and the availability of cheap gas from the North Sea. In 1990 just 1.09% of all gas consumed in the country was used in electricity generation. By 2004 the figure was 30.25%.

By 2004, coal use in power stations had fallen by 43.6% (50.5 million tonnes, representing 82.4% of all coal used in 2004) compared to 1980 levels, though up slightly from its low in 1999.

From the mid 1990s new renewable energy sources began to contribute to the electricity generated, adding to a small hydroelectricity generating capacity.

By 2004, total electricity production stood at 382.7 TWh (up 23.7% compared to 309.4 TWh in 1990), generated from the following sources:

  • gas – 39.93% (0.05% in 1990)
  • coal – 33.08% (67.22% in 1990)
  • nuclear – 19.26% (18.97% in 1990)
  • renewables – 3.55% (0% in 1990)
  • hydroelectric – 1.10% (2.55% in 1990)
  • imports – 1.96% (3.85% in 1990)
  • oil – 1.12% (6.82% in 1990)

UK Government energy policy expects that the total contribution from renewables should rise to 10% by 2010. The Scottish Executive has a target of generating 17% to 18% of Scotland's electricity from renewables by 2010, rising to 40% by 2020.

The UK 'energy gap'

In the early years of the 2000s, concerns grew over the prospect of an 'energy gap' in UK generating capacity. This is forecast to arise because it is expected that a number of coal fired power stations will close due to being unable to meet the clean air requirements of the European Large Combustion Plant Directive (directive 2001/80/EC). In addition, the UK's remaining Magnox nuclear stations and two of the seven AGR nuclear stations will have closed by 2015. However the oldest AGR nuclear power station has had its life extended by ten years, and it is likely many of the others can be life-extended, reducing the potential gap.

A report from the industry in 2005 forecast that, without action to fill the gap, there would be a 20% shortfall in electricity generation capacity by 2015. Similar concerns were raised by a report published in 2000 by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (Energy - The Changing Climate). The 2006 Energy Review attracted considerable press coverage - in particular in relation to the prospect of constructing a new generation of nuclear power stations, in order to prevent the rise in carbon dioxide emissions that would arise if other conventional power stations were to be built.

Among the public, according to a November 2005 poll conducted by YouGov for Deloitte, 35% of the population expect that by 2020 the majority of electricity generation will come from renewable energy (more than double the government's target, and far beyond the 5% likely based on government energy policy as of May 2007), 23% expect that the majority will come from nuclear power, and only 18% that the majority will come from fossil fuels. 92% thought the Government should do more to explore alternative power generation technologies to reduce carbon emissions.

Plugging the energy gap

The first move to plug the UK's energy gap was the announcement by Centrica, in June 2006, that they are to go ahead with the construction of the conventionally gas-fired Langage Power Station.

In 2007, proposals for the construction of two new coal fired power stations were announced, in Tilbury, Essex and in Kingsnorth, Kent. If built, they will be the first coal fired stations to be built in the UK in 20 years.

Beyond these new plants, there are a number of options that might be used to provide the new generating capacity, while minimising carbon emissions.

Fossil fuels

Fossil fuel power plants might provide a solution if there was a satisfactory and economical way of reducing their carbon emissions. Carbon capture might provide a way of doing this, however the technology is relatively untried and costs are relatively high. As yet (2006) there are no power plants in operation with a full carbon capture and storage system.

Nuclear

While nuclear power doesn't produce carbon dioxide in generation (though the construction, mining, waste handling and disposal, and decommissioning do generate carbon emissions), it raises other environmental and security concerns. Despite this, it has great potential for generating electricity. In France, for example, nearly 80% of the country's electricity production is nuclear powered. However, even with changes to the planning system to speed applications, there are doubts over whether the necessary timescale could be met, and over the financial viability of nuclear power. With no nuclear plants having been constructed since Sizewell B in 1995, there are also likely to be capacity issues within the native nuclear industry. The existing privatised nuclear supplier, British Energy, had been in financial trouble in 2004.

Wind

A March 2006 report by the British Wind Energy Association forecast that onshore windfarms should be able to supply nearly 5% of the national electricity requirements by 2010 (6 GW). The development of offshore windfarms in the UK is more recent, with only 4 operational at the end of 2005 generating only 213.80 MW, though others are in the pipeline. The installed capacity of all wind farms in the UK passed the 2 GW milestone in February 2007, but there remains considerable scope for growth. The world leader in wind power is Germany, which had installed 20.6 GW by the end of 2006.

Wave and tide power

Due to the island location of the UK, the country has great potential for generating electricity from wave power and tidal power.

To date, wave and tidal power have received very little money for development and consequently have not yet been exploited on a significant commercial basis due to doubts over their economic viability in the UK. Funding for the UK's first wave farm was announced by the Scottish Executive in February 2007. It will be the world's largest, with a capacity of 3 MW generated by four Pelamis machines and a cost of over 4 million pounds.

Cogeneration

Combined heat and power plants, where 'waste' hot water from generating is used for district heating, are also a well tried technology in other parts of Europe. While it heats about 50% of all houses in Denmark, Finland, Poland, Sweden and Slovakia, it currently only plays a small role in the UK. It has, however, been rising, and had reached an installed capacity of 5,777MWe by 2004, up from around 2,500 MWe in 1990. The Government has targeted 10,000 MWe by 2010.

Biofuels

Gas from sewage and landfill (biogas) has already been exploited in some areas. In 2004 it provided 129.3 GW·h (up 690% from 1990 levels), and was the UK's leading renewable energy source, representing 39.4% of all renewable energy produced (including hydro).

Other biofuels can provide a close-to-carbon-neutral energy source, if locally grown. In South America and Asia, the production of biofuels for export has in some cases resulted in significant ecological damage, including the clearing of rainforest. In 2004 biofuels provided 105.9 GW·h, 38% of it wood. This represented an increase of 500% from 1990.

Solar electricity

In some countries the installation of solar electricity has already received considerable Government support. At the end of 2006 the UK's installed capacity of 13 MWp (Megawatts peak) represented just 0.3% of the European total of 3.4 GWp. By way of comparison, due to their plans to phase out nuclear energy there is a growing (though heavily subsidised) capacity in Germany, where 3.0 GWp had been installed by the end of 2006 (90% of all European capacity).

Geothermal power

Investigations into the exploitation of Geothermal power in the United Kingdom, prompted by the 1973 oil crisis, were abandoned as fuel prices fell. Only one scheme is operational, in Southampton. In 2004 it was announced that a further scheme would be built to power heat the UK's first geothermal energy model village near Eastgate, County Durham.

Microgeneration

Microgeneration technologies are seen as having considerable potential by the Government. However the micorgeneration strategy they launched in March 2006 was seen as a disappointment by many commentators. Microgeneration involves the local production of electricity by homes and businesses from low-energy sources including small scale wind turbines, ground source heat pumps and solar electricity installations. The Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Act 2006 is expected to boost the number of microgeneration installations, however funding for grants under the Low Carbon Building Programme is proving insufficient to meet demand with funds for March 2007 being spent in 75 minutes.

Community energy systems

Sustainable community energy systems, pioneered by Woking Borough Council, provide an integrated approach to using cogeneration, renewables and other technologies to provide sustanable energy supplies to an urban community. It is expected that the same approach will be developed in other towns and cities, including London. Highlands and Islands Community Energy Company based in Inverness are active in developing community-owned and led initiatives in Scotland.

Energy conservation by sector

Much of the emphasis in energy debates tends to focus on the supply side of the issue, and ignore the demand. A number of commentators are concerned that this is being largely overlooked, partly due to the strength of the energy industry lobby. Energy conservation also has great potential, and may be able to significantly cut the size of the supposed energy gap, if early and concerted action is taken.

Housing

Along with road transport, domestic housing and energy use is currently one of the major obstacles to achieving carbon reduction targets. Housing currently accounts for just over 30% of all carbon dioxide emissions in the UK, and by 2010 the emissions from housing are expected to have risen 18.5% above 1990 levels. This rise is projected to continue beyond 2010. While some action is being taken on new buildings, particularly due to the 2006 changes to the Building Regulations, relatively little is being done to improve the existing housing stock.

Domestic appliances

In the housing sector, consumer electronics and IT products are an area where energy use is expected to continue to rise rapidly. In the decade from the mid 1990s to the mid 2000s electricity consumed by such goods rose by 47%. By the early 2010s it is expected to have risen again by over 80%.. It was estimated that, in 2004, at least 8% of domestic electricity was used by items in standby mode, representing 360 kW·h and 42 kg of carbon emissions for each household.

Consumption of electricity by all domestic appliances (including cooking and lighting) rose by 123% between 1970 and 2003, and by 223% when cooking and lighting are excluded.

Transport

Transport continues to grow as a significant user of fuel in the UK, and along with housing, this continues to be one of the major challenges to achieving the Government's carbon reduction targets.

By 2003 the amount of fuel used by transport had risen by around 60% since 1970. While oil is the main energy source, electricity and LPG make up a small percentage. Carbon emissions from transport have almost doubled over this period. Increasing car usage, increasing engine sizes, and levels of congestion are some of the problem areas, as is increasing air travel.

Road transport

Efforts to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide and particulates from diesel vehicles have actually led to an increase in fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions. Current technology should allow further reductions in emissions without increases in fuel consumption, and hopefully future technology will allow fuel consumption, and therefore CO2 emissions, to reduce.

The basis of Vehicle Excise Duty (VED), also known as "road tax", was changed so that cars registered on or after March 1, 2001 are taxed according to the VED band that they fall into. VED bands are based on the results of a laboratory test, designed to calculate the theoretical potential emissions of the vehicle in grammes of CO2 per kilometre travelled, under ideal conditions. This has encouraged a 21% increase in the ownership of diesel cars, which produce lower CO2 emissions, but increase particulates. Company Car Tax was also revised to reflect both the list price and CO2 emissions.

A voluntary scheme to display Fuel Economy Labels on new cars was introduced during July 2005, including information on Vehicle Excise Duty and likely fuel costs The scheme brings the UK into line with European Directive 1999/94/EC, and aims to influence the behaviour of both consumers and manufacturers.

During the 1990s the Fuel Price Escalator was used to raise road fuel tax in an attempt to reduce vehicle usage and cut emissions. The mechanism was abandoned in the wake of the 2000 fuel protests. In the December 2006 Pre-Budget Report the Government announced a rise in fuel tax, and stated that fuel prices should rise each year 'at least in line with inflation'.

From 2008, a Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation is being introduced, under which petrol and diesel are likely to be blended with 5% biofuels by 2010. It is anticipated that this will cut carbon emissions in the transport sector by between 2% and 3%.

The 'Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership' is pursuing the goal that new cars should produce no more than 100 g/km of CO2 by 2012. It also works in on reducing carbon emissions from commercial vehicles and in the area of alternative fuels.

Domestic shipping

Although 7.5% of freight within the UK is moved by coastal shipping and on inland waterways (in tonne kilometres, excluding crude oil from the North Sea), this is largely limited to stone, aggregates and refined petroleum. A series of reports have discussed the financial and environmental advantages of increasing this proportion. Compared to road transport, carbon emissions are around 80% less and nitrogen dioxide about 35% less.

As a result the issue is receiving more attention with, for example, British Waterways considering the potential for developing inland container ports. Blocks to the regular movement of containers include the lack of regular shipping services by reliable shippers of adequate size, and the additional handling costs involved.

In some areas, including London, investment is being made in the canal infrastructure in order to boost freight transport, and action is being taken to protect the remaining wharves on the Thames

Air transport

Air transport is currently taxed through Air Passenger Duty.

Carbon emissions from international aviation are currently excluded from UK and international carbon reduction targets. Due to the current and projected rise in passenger numbers, the sector is expected to become a major source of emissions in the future. In 1998, 123.9 million international passengers were carried through UK airports (159.1 million in total, including domestic aviation). Due to the expansion of airport capacity envisaged by the Department for Transport's white paper The Future of Air Transport, it is forecast that 470 million passengers are likely to be carried by 2030.

Using the Department for Transport's 'best case' emission forecasts, in their August 2006 report the Environmental Audit Select Committee expect that the sector will account for 24% of the UK's emissions in 2050, compared to around 5% in 2006. In addition, due to a variety of altitude-related factors, carbon emissions from aviation are considered to be between 2 and 4 times as damaging as emissions at ground level. The Select Committee have called for a number of actions to combat this projected emissions increase, including the taxation of aviation fuel, the imposition of VAT on international air tickets, and a rise in Air Passenger Duty.

Industry

Compared to 1990, energy use by industry had fallen by over 5% by 2004.

The highest profile initiative to cut carbon emissions is the European Union Emission Trading Scheme, which is operated in the UK under the 'Greenhouse Gas Emissions Trading Scheme Regulations'. Under Phase I of the scheme, the UK was allocated an allowance of 736 million tonnes of CO2 for the period 2005-2007 (i.e. an annual average of 245.3 million tonnes). An annual average of 246.2 million tonnes has been set for the Phase II period (2008-2012).

Other measures affecting industry include the Climate Change Levy.

Energy research

Historically, public sector support for energy research and development in the UK has been provided by a variety of bodies with little co-ordination between them. Problems experienced have included poor continuity of funding, and the availability of funding for certain parts of the research-development-commercialisation process but not others. Levels of public funding have also been low by international standards, and funding by the private sector has also been limited.

Research in the area of energy is carried out by a number of public and private sector bodies:

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council funds an energy programme spanning energy and climate change research. It aims to develop, embrace and exploit sustainable, low carbon and/or energy efficient technologies and systems to enable the UK to meet the Government’s energy and environmental targets by 2020. Its research includes renewable, conventional, nuclear and fusion electricity supply as well as energy efficiency, fuel poverty and other topics.

Since being established in 2004, the UK Energy Research Centre carries out research into demand reduction, future sources of energy, infrastructure and supply, energy systems, sustainability and materials for advanced energy systems.

The Energy Technologies Institute, expected to begin operating in 2008, is to 'accelerate the development of secure, reliable and cost-effective low-carbon energy technologies towards commercial deployment'.

In relation to buildings, the Building Research Establishment carries out some research into energy conservation.

There is currently international research being conducted into Fusion power. The ITER reactor is currently being constructed at Cadarache in France. The UK contributes towards this project through membership of the European Union. Prior to this, an experimental Fusion reactor (the Joint European Torus) had been built at Culham in Oxfordshire.

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