By Mike Pepler, UK Awards Manager
At a time of global and political uncertainty, protecting the UK's energy supply and 'keeping the lights on' must surely be keeping many a DECC official awake at night.
Current figures do not look good. While as recently as 2003 we were a net exporter of energy, in that year the steady decline of North Sea oil and gas production started a growing trend of importing energy. Alarmingly, DECC figures show that between April 2011 and March 2012 the UK imported:
- 62% of our coal
- 20% of our oil
- 40% of our gas
With a total estimated import bill of £24 bn a year, overall energy imports now account for about 34% of our total demand, compared to 4.5% just 7 years ago, and this trend will continue even if the enthusiasm for fracking in some areas is maintained.
The reason for this is the rate of production decline. During the 12 months to the first quarter of 2012:
- Coal production fell 12%
- Oil production fell 13%
- Gas production fell 14%
- Nuclear production of electricity fell 12%
How can we stop the rot? More importantly, how do we navigate the so-called ‘trilemma’ of the demands of security of supply, climate change goals and affordability?
As Energy Secretary Ed Davey at least appears to recognise, investing in renewable sources of energy is key to increasing our energy security. And there are plenty of models around that demonstrate its potential to create a triple win of energy security, bottom line benefits and reduced CO2 emissions.
For example, 2012 Ashden winner Energy4All enables communities to invest in wind power, while 2009 winner Midlands Wood Fuel gives customers a reliable and high quality supply of wood fuel, providing them the option of paying per unit of heat rather than per tonne of wood to simplify their financial planning.
In fact, if you look beyond the political rhetoric, renewable energy seems to be performing quite well. DECC figures show that:
- Generation is up 39%. High rainfall and stronger wind helped, as well as increased numbers of wind turbines.
- The renewable share of total electricity is 11.1% compared to 7.7% a year ago.
- Renewable generation capacity is up 36% on a year ago, to 13GW.
Reducing demand must also be part of the energy security debate
Strangely absent from much of the current debate on energy security – and indeed, from the Energy Bill itself – is a lack of discussion about how reducing demand can also help achieve this triple win.
According to DECC, some 82% of coal demand in the UK is for electricity generation, as is 34% of gas demand. Families, communities and public and private sector organisations can all make a difference here, by reducing their electricity consumption. One of our winners this year, Student Switch Off, has shown what’s possible in cutting demand, by persuading thousands of university students to cut the electricity use by 7% through behaviour change alone.
Saving electricity is a good start, but keeping warm is an even bigger problem, with domestic heating and cooking using 32% of UK gas demand, on top of heating oil and direct electric heating.
And it’s not just homes. Public buildings and businesses need heating too, and almost all of them need their efficiency improving. The University Hospital of South Manchesterhas been leading the way for the NHS, cutting its gas use by 47% through efficiency upgrades and the use of biomass boilers. Meanwhile in Wales, the National Trust – showing that even historic buildings can be retrofitted – has achieved energy savings of over 40%, and across the country Parity Projects has been surveying homes and advising households and social landlords on how best to cut their energy use. Renewable sources of heating will still need to be used, but making these efficiency savings will reduce the cost and complexity of doing that.
Transport is of course the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’, as it is harder to find alternatives to oil, and it consumes 35-40% of energy in the UK. Liftshare.com, one of our Sustainable Travel Award winners, encourages people to make the most of the transport already in use, by facilitating car sharing, so cutting CO2 emissions by 108,000 tonnes a year.
So the models of change are there – both for renewable energy generation and for saving energy. Working on both is key to ensuring a future continual supply of energy, achieving our climate change targets and keeping a lid on fuel costs during these difficult economic times.