Energy companies earn money by selling us energy. The more wasteful we are, the more profits they make. So why would the government give them such a big role in the energy efficiency and renewable programmes in the UK? The energy companies goals are not a reduction in energy consumption. They don't encourage energy reduction but just focus on selective 'energy efficiency' measures. That may sound like the same thing but it isn't.
If you replace your old boiler with a more efficient one, the new boiler may be 20% more efficient. This means it uses 20% less fuel to produce the same amount of heat. It may sound like this will lead to a 20% reduction in energy consumption and heating bills, but research has shown that some of that saving is used to make our homes warmer. In other words reducing our heating bills encourages us to use more heat so that we have a warmer more comfortable home. There may still be a reduction in the overall heating energy used, but it is unlikely to be the full 20% that one might hope for.
Replacing an old fridge for a more efficient fridge will reduce electricity consumption, so long as you don't opt for a larger fridge than the one you had before (or keep the old fridge running in the garage as a spare). Buying a more efficient telly, which is then double the size is another false saving. Research has proven that energy efficiency measures do not significantly reduce our energy consumption. It just makes it cheaper, allowing us to use more.
Even with renewable energy there isn't always the savings. People who have PV panels installed can sometimes feel that their electricity is free, so become less careful with their energy consumption. In the UK they generate a relatively small amount of electricity, and very little in winter when the days are short and overcast. Yet there are cases of people ripping out their gas heating boiler and replacing it for electric heating, thinking that free energy from the sun will be enough to heat their homes in winter. Lack of understanding of technology can be a major factor.
Of all the energy efficiency measures, insulating the walls and roof of your home have to come out as the most effective. They are simple as people can understand the logic of wrapping your home in a blanket to keep it warm, and it can be retrofitted to existing homes. The insulation can last for 40 years or more without need for maintenance, and it still works during a power cut. It doesn't require the owner to change their habits either, they still put the heating on when they feel cold and turn it off when they are warm enough.
There has been a lot of energy efficiency drives in the UK since the 1980's, so we really should have reduced our energy consumption significantly since then, right? The graph below shows "Total primary energy consumption, unadjusted and temperature corrected, UK (1970 to 2013)" and is taken from Energy Consumption in the UK (2014) report, from Department of Energy and Climate Change. It includes energy used for transport, heating, generating electricity and manufacturing goods.
Energy consumption really doesn't seem to have been going down since the 1980's. In fact it is only since the recent recession hit that there has been any significant signs of energy reduction. The government tend to use the year 2000 as the base year, so compared to that energy consumption in 2013 has reduced by 12%, but if we compare to 1980 it is still an increase.
I realise that this is against a background of a growing population, but at the same time we have shipped many of our industries abroad. The energy consumed to produce clothes, furniture, electronic gadgets and cuddly toys, is some other country's problem now, namely China's. Take a look at the graph above taken from ChinaFAQs (originally from the US EIA) which shows that industry, the grey area on the graph, is by far China's largest energy consumption and their domestic use, shown in green, is still very small. The column on the right shows the equivalent energy breakdown in the USA. China may now be the World's biggest energy consumer, but the largest part of that is manufacturing goods for the West. China has 19% of the Worlds population whereas the USA has 4%, making their energy consumption look rather modest. A chunk of that grey area on the graph is for making products that end up in the UK. If we could account for that, then our energy consumption would clearly still be rising.
And if we think about the goods, we can see another trend. Instead of having just one landline phone per household, people generally have several handsets on their landlines, and a mobile phone for every family member. No longer do kids have one cherished toy but multiple fads. The volume of 'stuff' we have has been increasing.
Also international flights generally aren't included in the government transport figures. There was always a disagreement over what to include, so conveniently nothing was included. For example, if a British tourist flies to Sri Lanka with Singapore airlines and stops at Athens en route, do you include just the leg of the journey originating in the UK which ends at Athens, or all the way to Sri Lanka but not the return journey which would be Sri Lanka's problem, or the whole journey both ways, or none of the journey because it is with a non-British company?
Energy efficiency hasn't made a dent on world energy trends either, as seen in the graph above from Gail Tverlberg's blog Our Finite World. What does make a difference is high energy prices or recession, which lowers our ability to afford to pay for energy. One way to reduce energy consumption without the hardship of a recession or the pain of high energy prices is by introducing energy rationing. You can bet that the energy companies won't be supporting that one ;-) Fossil fuels are becoming harder to find and more expensive to extract and if we don't start rationing supplies ourselves, then nature will do it for us and in a way that is not fair and rather ugly.
What I found when I looked at the energy consumption in schools for my work, was that the new schools that were well-insulated with highly efficient systems were not necessarily the lowest energy consumers. They were designed with bright lighting that looked as good as daylight (so people didn't think to switch it off) and had extra technology in every classroom. However the schools that had a penny-pinching caretaker, generally one that is a bit fierce and grumpy so that the teachers would rather wear a jumper than ask him to turn the heating up, generally had lower energy bills. The new school would have a fancy metering system that no one understood or needed regular input from a support desk, whereas the caretaker would traditionally walk round and read the meters himself.
What I am saying is that if you want to really reduce your energy consumption it helps to have a frugal mindset. Think about the energy you are using and the cost - financial and environmental, personal and global - and then make wise energy choices. It is vital to know how much energy you use each year and how much it is costing. The best thing that energy companies could do to reduce energy consumption for very little money, would be to make their bills simple and clear. Instead they hide the facts behind monthly direct debits or fancy tariffs. They should show people a graph of their energy consumption compared to the year before or better still compared to the average for their neighbourhood. Then we might start to see some real energy reductions.