energy

The enough point of electricity

Here’s an under-reported fact: electricity use is declining in advanced industrial economies. It peaked about ten years ago, give or take. Here’s a graph of the :

When it first began to tail off, it was assumed that it was the recession and that demand would pick up again afterwards. That hasn’t happened, and there are a number of different reasons why.

First, heavy industry has moved overseas. Part of the decline in the West is picked up by the rising energy use in China and elsewhere, with global supply chains shifting manufacturing to cheaper locations. But electricity use is falling domestically too, so it’s bigger than that. Ordinary households are using less, and that’s down to more efficient appliances.

Over the years, efficiency standards have improved. This graph is from the EU, which has driven those efficiency measures. The fridge trend is particularly significant, because they’re on all the time and have traditionally been the biggest electricity user in the home. (If you’re wondering why TVs buck the trend, that was the brief fashion for plasma TVs, before they were replaced by more efficient LEDs.) Light bulbs aren’t on the graph, but they’ve gone through two big shifts – from incandescent bulbs to compact fluorescents, and then to LEDs.

Other factors in the decline include distributed solar. In some contexts the statistics note the addition of solar power as a decline in energy demand rather than adding capacity. Another trend in Britain is a decline in cooking at home, which has reduced domestic energy use.

The overall decline in electricity use may not last forever. Electrification of transport, whether that’s cars or trains, will push demand for electricity back up again. But there’s more that can be done on the efficiency front too, so it may be bit of a wobbly plateau for a while.

There are a bunch of implications here for the profits of big energy companies, for energy policy and so on. But what I wanted to highlight is that there’s an enough point for electricity. Not everything grows forever. As Chris Goodall puts it, “the wealthier nations have got as much power as they will ever need.”

For some countries, energy use needs to come down. Why do Canadians need three times more electricity than Brits? There are extremes of temperature that we don’t have to deal with, but still – room for improvement there, eh? North America could do with the kind of efficiency standards that the EU has adopted. Other countries are going to be expanding. But the future is convergence at a point of sufficiency, not an endless upwards graph of rising demand.

11 comments

  1. You may be right eventually, but I think for the next few decades our requirement for electricity is going to increase quite dramatically. If you look at David Mackay’s treatment () we need to substitute 80 kWh/day on transport and heating, which is currently almost all provided by fossil fuels. It’s likely that electricity will be a big part of this substitution, at least for the next few decades (even if the hydrogen economy takes off, which is subject to lots of uncertainties, it’s likely to involve electricity to generate it). So I think it’s important to realise we probably have to ramp up both electricity generation, and various forms of efficiency, very promptly and substantially – which will be challenging!

  2. Yes, there will be a rise in electricity use, and if electrification is accompanied by the displacement of fossil fuels with renewable energy that would be a positive development. But not everything needs to be electrified though. Some energy use can be eliminated altogether, which is why insulation is so important – we still waste a third of our heating bills into the sky in Britain. We can travel less, through walkable cities and remote working.

    I’m a fan of David McKay, but I’d like to add a few things to his graph. For one thing, I think we can do better than a 25% improvement on heating by 2050, and I’d add biogas in there. I also think that ‘electrical things’ won’t hold steady, but will fall as efficiency continues to improve.

    1. I think there are two points to be clear on: firstly, electrification is the most immediate solution for transport and to some extent heating, and both are huge, much larger than today’s electricity use. Other non-electric sustainable solutions may arise, but won’t be ready for quite a long time yet (and at this early stage we can’t be sure how successful they’ll be). Secondly, building energy efficiency has proved hard to tackle, particularly in homes – lots of social/political factors are holding up progress, even the most easily achievable stuff – and retrofitting our vast existing stock of buildings will be even more challenging. Achieving 25% and more in improvements is vital, but we need to recognise the nature and size of this challenge, or we won’t meet it.
      Also, biogas is great, but surely can’t make more than a small contribution (unless we convert huge swathes of productive land to producing feedstocks)?

  3. Absolutely, and in the long term the convergence point may well be higher than Britain’s current consumption. But in the long term – I’m talking 2050 and beyond – we might have got around to solving those issues like retrofitting. I would certainly hope so. It’s possible to build or retrofit homes so that they need almost no heating, and that has to be our eventual aim. This is no small task, as you say. That’s why it was such a blow that the government killed the zero carbon homes target, as at least we would guarantee that new homes were fit for the 21st century and weren’t adding to the problem.

    Biogas can make a much bigger contribution if we consider the grass farming approach that Ecotricity is pioneering. Their estimate is that Britain’s marginal grazing land could theoretically provide 95% of gas needs, once efficiency gains are counted in. That’s a wildly optimistic estimate as far as I’m concerned, but perhaps a quarter to a third is possible eventually.

    1. I don’t want to be over argumentative, but concerning biogas, I worry about encroaching on other constraints, like ecosystem resilienc/biodiversity and (legitimate?) protein production from pastured livestock. Isn’t this something of a re-run of the biofuels debate?

      1. There are similarities for sure, and we’d want to beware of perverse incentives. We can learn from biofuels there, as they remain a good idea in theory, with the right structures and regulations. One of the main differences as I see it is that the processes for biogas are much simpler and there are lots of sources. We can use food waste, crop residues and waste from animal farms, even sewage plants and landfill gas. Ecotricity’s plan is to use grass, which would be grown on marginal land, probably currently occupied with sheep and totally uneconomic without EU subsidies.

        I’m with you by the way, on this being an enormous challenge, and I do think electricity use will rise in the longer term. My point is a broad one, that energy supply is not an endless upward demand curve. The market appears to mature, or reach a saturation point where people have what they need. Developing countries such as China may be able to observe that and plan for an earlier and lower plateau, while overdeveloped countries should be able to use efficiency measures to settle onto a lower ‘enough’ point.

  4. A related issue is the management of the electricity transmission and supply grids. Parts of the electricity grid are now becoming redundant – those taking output from large coal fired power stations for example. Others such as the grid connecting remote parts of Scotland and the islands are in need of enhancement . Visiting Orkney this week it is clear that there is a surplus of renewable generation and much more available likely to come on line from tidal in the near future yet no effective means of transmitting it to larger urban markets . The same is true for energy projects in Argyll and the Western Isles.

    Yet management of the grid and any strategy for its development to help promote a rapid transition to a low carbon economy is opaque and uncertain. This is a critical piece of national infrastructure this is largely in private ownership and is weekly accountable to local or national governments. The result is delay, uncertainty and additional costs for renewable energy projects large and small.

    1. That’s a problem Britain has at the moment, with lots of energy being produced in Scotland, far from the most populated areas of the country! A neglected problem that you’re right to highlight. Hopefully the government’s answer will be to invest in better connections, rather than using surplus power as a comparative advantage and encouraging businesses to relocate.

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