UK total energy consumption falls below 1965 levels

Britain’s rapidly falling energy consumption spells hope that others could follow a similar path, finds Gerard Wynn

EU steel producers say carbon pricing makes them uncompetitive (Pic: colink/Flickr)

Has the UK got more energy efficient or just lost heavy industry? (Pic: colink/Flickr)

By Gerard Wynn

The UK is the only country where data is available whose total energy consumption has now fallen below levels in 1965, the cut-off year for BP energy data, even while the country’s population has risen by a fifth and its economy trebled in size.

It is probable that energy consumption has similarly fallen in some former communist states, where BP has no such historical data.

The UK data could be seized upon by opposing narratives.

Explanation 1: Most of the drop in energy consumption has been in manufacturing, and so reinforces the idea that Britain is now useless at making stuff.

Explanation 2: It’s great news! Britain’s economic restructuring is generating massive energy savings, and lower carbon emissions. The International Energy Agency calculates that 38% of all carbon emissions cuts between now and 2050 must come from energy efficiency. Let’s hope that China, with its restructuring, slower growth and falling coal consumption, is following Britain’s lead.

Which view is right?

First, let’s check the data. Britain’s primary energy consumption (i.e. all energy use, including conversion losses in power plants and transmission) peaked in 2005, and has now fallen below 1965 levels (see figure below). The significance of 1965 is simply that is as far back as BP energy data goes. Britain’s own energy data confirms the same trend.


If we compare Britain with the rest of the world (except some former communist states, where BP has no historical data), it turns out that Britain is the only country in the world whose energy consumption has fallen below 1965 levels (see table below).


Why is this? Here are some possible reasons:

1. Falling conversion losses, as a result of a switch from coal to more efficient gas-fired electricity generation

2. Milder winters, leading to less gas heating

3. Industrial decline

4. Out-performance in energy efficiency

Taking these in turn, it isn’t about falling conversion losses: a chart of final energy consumption (which excludes such losses) tells the same story (see figure below). This figure is taken from the latest 2014 energy data, from the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC).


Milder winters are a small part of the answer. DECC obligingly gives an estimate for temperature-adjusted energy use, which has fallen slightly less precipitously. Once rising temperatures are accounted for, energy consumption now is down to 1985 levels, and a fraction above 1965 levels (198.7 Mtoe, vs 196.8 Mtoe in 1965). But energy consumption has still fallen sharply – see figure below.


That leaves either industrial decline or rising efficiency.

It turns out, to confound the sceptics, that by far the majority of the reductions in energy consumption in Britain has been as a result of falling energy intensity, loosely equivalent to rising energy efficiency. Energy intensity is the amount of energy consumed per unit of output.

Yes, industrial output has fallen, in terms of gross value added, and that has contributed to lower energy consumption. But about double the energy savings (7.5 Mtoe vs 4 Mtoe) are due to rising efficiency (just to confuse things, here we are comparing 2013 with 2000). In other sectors, there is a similar story. Energy consumption is falling in the domestic sector, despite more homes, and in the services sector, despite rising value added.


In all, energy intensity in the industrial sector fell 71% between 1970 and 2014, DECC data show, faster than any other sector (see figure below).


To understand more would take more analysis. For example, within “industry” we may find that energy-intensive industry, like chemicals, steel, aluminum and cement, have really suffered.  However, there is still a small message of hope, for those worried about climate change, or concern, for producers of oil and gas. As the first country to industrialise, there is some reason to suppose that Britain’s path of rapidly falling energy consumption will be followed by others.


Gerard Wynn is an energy and climate change consultant. This article was first published on his Energy and Carbon Blog

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