Energy efficiency potential

The Government’s Overarching National Policy Statement for Energy (EN-1) argues that, despite major improvements in overall energy efficiency, demand for electricity is likely to increase as significant sectors of energy demand (such as industry, heating and transport) switch from being powered by fossil fuels to using electricity. As a result of this electrification total electricity consumption (measured in terawatt hours over a year) could double by 2050, and if there is a high level of dependence on intermittent electricity generation, then the capacity (measured in Gigawatts) of electricity generation could need to triple.

Germany, which is planning an entirely non-nuclear route, even with the same 2050 objective of an 80% reduction in greenhouse gases, expects electricity demand to be 25% below present levels by 2050 – compared with our doubling – by implementing energy efficiency programmes.1 If, instead of planning for a doubling or tripling of electricity demand by 2050, the UK Government was planning for a reduction of 25%, as in Germany, then the capacity required by 2025 would fall by around 15%, removing the need for new reactors.

Not only is energy demand reduction compelling from an economic point of view, because it is far cheaper than building new generating capacity, but it is also key to reducing CO2 emissions without driving thousands more householders into fuel poverty. So not planning for a doubling of demand should be the priority alternative to building new reactors. The Coalition Government is committed to eradicating fuel poverty by 2016 “as far as reasonably practical”, so there clearly needs to be a huge national effort on energy efficiency for low income households in any case.2

The domestic sector uses around 30% of the final energy consumed in the UK. If the UK Government is to meet its target to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, it will need to implement a set of policies which can cut emissions from the domestic sector by 80% by 2050. It should be doing this anyway to meet its legal obligations on fuel poverty. Every house will need excellent insulation and some form of Low and Zero Carbon Technology –microgeneration or community heating schemes. This means carrying out installations in all of the UK’s 25 million dwellings over the next 37 years or 676,000 dwellings every year between now and 2050.3 So the obvious question is why are we not planning to refurbish existing households at, say, 700,000 houses per year?

Renewable Potential

Several well respected reports such as the European Climate Foundation’s Roadmap 2050 report and the Offshore Valuation Report have made it clear that it is technically feasible for the UK to receive most of its electricity from renewable sources without endangering the reliability of the electricity system (and at costs not substantially higher than other ways of decarbonising the power sector), as long as the  interconnection infrastructure with other European grids is significantly improved.

A WWF report published in October 2011 shows that renewable sources could meet 60% or more of the UK’s electricity demand by 2030. By using this amount of renewable energy, we could decarbonise the power sector without resorting to new nuclear power. We will also be able to maintain system security – that is, provide enough electricity at all times to make sure there’s never a risk of the ‘lights going out’.

An all-electric future?

A study for the CHP Association undertaken by Imperial College and Surrey University says that while an all-electric future could be low carbon, it isn’t necessarily the best way of doing things. Heat is a very important end-use of energy in the current energy system and is expected to remain so in 2050. In 2007, heat represented 41% of total final energy consumption in the UK. Over half of this heat demand comes from the domestic sector, highlighting the significant challenge associated with decarbonising this sector particularly. No route to low carbon heat is without challenges, but the all-electric future would not necessarily be optimally efficient, since thermal losses from power generation are large.

A diverse combination of technologies could provide a more robust energy system in the long run. An integrated approach would use a range of heat options, including gas-fired CHP, biomass-fired CHP plant, and even CHP with carbon capture and storage technologies. Once district heating networks are established geothermal heat, waste heat from industrial processes, heat pumps using boreholes or rivers, solar heat, and so on could also be used.

A study by Pöyry Energy Consulting looked at industries across the UK which could generate as much electricity as 10 nuclear power stations and halve gas imports by installing or extending CHP plants. Implementing a decentralised energy strategy which makes the most of CHP and district heating need not be locking the UK into using fossil fuel gas. For a start, as the Poyry study shows, it could lead to dramatic reductions in gas consumption much sooner than would otherwise be the case. Secondly, once the district heating networks are established they can be converted to run on other fuel sources such as biomethane, biomass, geothermal and solar in the future. In contrast the Government’s all electric vision is tending to lead to proposals for new types of wasteful electricity generating plant such as some of the large biomass proposals which will not be capturing a significant percentage of the waste heat.

The role of microgeneration

A study commissioned by the Government from the Energy Saving Trust (EST) suggested that by 2050, microgeneration could provide 30-40% of the UK’s electricity needs and help to reduce household carbon emissions. A target of 10% for 2020 could be well within reach. This would clearly obviate the need for new nuclear reactors. Domestic-scale CHP could be providing 20% of the UK’s electricity, more than current UK nuclear capacity, not long after 2020, and much more quickly than new nuclear build. 4

1. The Federal Government’s Energy Concept of 2010 and the transformation of the Energy System of 2011. Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, October 2011

2.  Fuel Poverty: Government Response to the Committee’s 5th Report, Energy and Climate Change Committee, 19th October 2010

3. Boardman, B. Home Truths: A Low Carbon Strategy to Reduce UK Housing Emissions by 80% by 2050, FoE (EWNI) and Co-operative Bank, November 2007

4. See


Published: 11 October 2012
Last updated: 9 December 2012