If natural gas can ever get to tell our part of the story in the energy and climate debate, we need to understand the three energy revolutions happening simultaneously this century. Only one is the ability of natural gas to be now so abundant that it can make a huge dent in coal, and thus carbon emissions world wide.
The second is often the only message we hear from the green claque and a media united in an eternal quest for a new and different narrative. The development surprised greens as much as gas. That’s the plunge in renewable costs, even if, as in Germany, it’s a complicated story and in some places it doesn’t stand up to close examination or more to the point, doesn’t produce a huge amount of carbon reduction. Yet.
The third is the silent story, a fantastic win for the environment, of efficiency causing significant falls in energy demand. It’s a silent story for two reasons. Firstly it’s pretty hard to get a journalist interested in a story where nothing happens. Secondly it disrupts the we’re all doomed school of energy. That’s the one where we use too much energy with inevitable results: high prices, energy insecurity and high carbon production.
The efficiency meme is encapsulated over at MyGridGB, one of the better sites for showing electricity demand:
Reducing demand means reduced carbon emissions. Energy saving is really important for driving down carbon. This comes through stricter standards for efficient appliances, LED lighting and simply switching things off.
But what if this is organically happening anyway? Every couple of years, OFGEM produces estimates of Typical Domestic Consumption Values for both gas and electricity.
This is the most recent from 2015:
Using the median, this shows a 9.2% drop in gas use in only two years, and an average 3% fall in power use. Electricity is more nuanced in that although any electronic or white goods we replace are inevitably more energy efficient , we tend to have more of them or bigger models. The old advice of both energy advisers and parents of teenagers everywhere still holds true of course: Switch off the light! But as lighting itself reduces in energy consumption, the guidance became less relevant as the progression from incandescent lighting through CFL, Halogen, LED and now OLED makes lighting up to 90% less energy intense than even ten years ago. Furthermore, OLED promises to realistically keep lighting on via simple solar generation and storage built in.
The UK government, in an attempt to save money in other ways than energy efficiency, no longer funds revisions to this 2013 report on how homes use energy. It’s a worth a look for a backward glimpse but is becoming more outdated–and important– going forward.
On the gas side, savings reflect two trends. One is better insulation of both old and new homes. The other comes from the up to 40% savings one gets by replacing a 20 year old central heating boiler. Not everyone will be able to continue the trend and it will eventually plateau , but 1.8 million central heating systems are replaced or newly installed each year in the UK according to Worcester Bosch who sell more than anyone. I like to call them heating systems, by the way, thinking the UK term “boilers” sounds old fashioned, if not as alarming as the common US term which describes them as “furnaces”.
OFGEM asks suppliers opinion of customer demand levels and notably, British Gas, the largest gas and electricity supplier’s response was telling:
There is one area of concern that we would like to highlight. Energy demand is currently reducing at a rate of around 3-4% per year. Given this, reviewing the TDCVs once every two years risks the consumption values becoming materially inaccurate.
The drop in heating use has meant that in 2015 the UK used 28% less gas than in 2005. (68.3 BCM from 94.9 BCM, via BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2016) and even less than 70.5 BCM used in 1995- since when population has risen by 8 million and GDP per capita has doubled. At the same time, the share of gas generation increased.
In short, those who propose we won’t need UK onshore gas resources if we only become more efficient are half right. Reducing demand will always remain an obvious no brainer. But as we produce less gas in the UK, we’re still going to need some gas to replace the new lower plateau of UK energy production and consumption. It’s not about keeping gas in the ground. It’s about whose ground do we want to keep it under. That inevitably means footprint and more of that soon.