Page last updated at 11:23 GMT, Tuesday, 24 January 2006

Energy's 'low hanging fruit'

Dr Kevin Anderson
Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research

Energy sticker (BBC)
The UK is engaged in a debate about its energy future
The UK's energy debate has been framed wrongly, argues analyst Kevin Anderson. He believes we should be looking at issues of demand and efficiency, and not so much at the problem of supply.

The UK government's energy review is an event welcomed with a mix of anticipation and trepidation by manufacturers and operators of different and often competing forms of electricity generation.

For others concerned with the future of the UK's energy system (demand and supply of heating, transport and electricity), it is less the review's pronouncement on the appropriateness or otherwise of different generating options that is of interest, but more the premise of the review.

Why is yet another review deemed necessary just 23 months after the government published its much heralded Energy White Paper (EWP)?

The launch of the EWP, with its vision of renewable energy allied with energy efficiency providing a low-carbon, secure and affordable energy future was met with delight in some quarters, disbelief and derision in others, and scepticism by a few.

The current blinkered interpretation of energy as an issue of supply, particularly electricity supply, is likely to lead to inappropriate, wasteful and ultimately ineffective policies
The absence of any real policy initiatives to bring about the EWP's vision left some analysts questioning whether it really disguised a charter for nuclear power.

The government's continued reluctance to institute meaningful energy efficiency policies, the narrow focus of its latest review, and the lengthening roll call of minister and MPs now prepared to voice their support for nuclear power, all combine to suggest the sceptics were perhaps onto something.

'Poor debate'

Personally, I'm ambivalent about whether nuclear power remains a major source of electricity generation within the UK.

However, despite my ambivalence over nuclear power per se, I'm increasingly disturbed by the abysmal level of much of the debate - informed as it so often is by prejudice and ignorance.

The arguments commonly voiced by many of the antagonists are dangerously simplistic and highly misleading in terms of policy.

A pile of coal

For example, given that nuclear power provides only 3.6% of our final energy consumption, the argument that the UK cannot meet its carbon dioxide targets without building a new generation of nuclear stations to replace the existing and aging generation is evidently wrong.

Similarly, the argument that nuclear power is too costly, does not take into account the security costs associated with attempting to maintain fossil fuel supplies from what are often perceived to be unstable regions of the world.

How much, for example, have the UK's forays into Afghanistan and Iraq cost the tax payer? Until such costs are factored into the analysis, economic comparisons between fossil fuels and nuclear are essentially meaningless.

Exacerbating the absence of any dispassionate quantitative and qualitative analysis in relation to nuclear power, is the reluctance to recognise that the issues we face in terms of sustainability and security require a broader vision of the energy system as a whole.

The current blinkered interpretation of energy as an issue of supply, particularly electricity supply, is likely to lead to inappropriate, wasteful and ultimately ineffective policies.

Public mood

With the UK's emissions of carbon dioxide continuing to rise, and substantially so if emissions associated with international aviation and shipping are included, urgent action is necessary to curb the UK's contribution to climate change.

Whatever the arguments for and against alternative low-carbon supply options, we simply do not have the luxury of waiting the decadal timeframe necessary to bring about such a supply transition.

Nuclear power station (PA)

Consequently, if the UK is to demonstrate effective leadership on climate change, it is incumbent on the government to redress the balance of its policy agenda in favour of reducing energy demand.

Research contained within the Tyndall Centre's 2005 report, Decarbonising the UK (DUK), clearly illustrates a suite of opportunities to substantially reduce current energy demand within the short-to-medium timeframe.

Moreover, Tyndall research published just last week on Public Perceptions of Nuclear Power, Climate Change and Energy Options, indicates three-quarters of the UK population favours "lifestyle changes and energy efficiency" over, for example, nuclear power, as an appropriate response to climate change.

In conducting the analysis of energy demand, Tyndall's DUK avoided being too prescriptive about desirable end-use technologies.

In contrast to a "best practice" approach to legislation, Tyndall's DUK report favoured a minimum-standard framework, within which, for example, no objection to four-wheel drive cars existed, provided they achieved some minimum fuel economy figure (perhaps 50mpg by 2012).

Tyndall's DUK report set out a low-consumption future that achieved a 47% reduction in energy demand by 2050
It envisioned implementing middle to tough efficiencies but still achieved its goals with good (3.3%pa) economic growth
The scenario assumed a modest increase in passenger km travelled, but sought a major shift to public transport
It also assumed the UK's housing stock would be retrofitted or demolished to achieve high efficiency standards
This 2050 scenario also had the plus of achieving the UK's aspirational target of a 60% reduction in carbon emissions

Across the board, Tyndall research found substantial reductions in emissions are available using currently available technologies; with often the most efficient technology consuming just 30% to 70% of the typical product sold within that class.

It is the sheer scale of energy efficiency's "low hanging fruit" that led the Tyndall's DUK report to conclude that the government should, as a matter of urgency, implement and enforce a phased programme of stringent minimum efficiency standards.

Moreover, the authors of the report suggest such standards must be incrementally ratcheted up, with the government providing a clear market signal to industry of future regulatory requirements.

Light bulb (BBC)
All new cars sold in the UK should meet a minimum mpg standard by 2010
Fridges and freezers sold after 2008 should not exceed a maximum energy use
New (best practice) building regulations should be raised incrementally at 2yr intervals
Phase out standby facilities on electrical gadgets, or insist on tough consumption standard
Phase out all 'normal' light bulbs by 2008 to be replaced by low-energy bulbs
Growth in aviation should be limited; expansion at existing airports should curtailed
Just six simple examples of how demand could be constrained
The cogency of the arguments for reducing energy demand as a means of mitigating our carbon dioxide emissions can no longer be ignored by any government serious in its desire to tackle climate change.

However, whilst in my view, this is, of itself, sufficient reason for government to act, reducing the energy used in providing services, such as warmth, refrigeration and lighting, offers two further and significant benefits.

First, in light of the rapidly escalating price of fossil fuels, any nation that substantially reduces the energy intensity of its commercial and industrial sectors will gain competitive advantage over those that are less successful in achieving such reductions.

If a decade ago the UK government had recognised the dwindling contribution from indigenous fossil fuel supply and had embarked on a programme of energy efficiency improvements, the UK would, to some extent, have been protected from the economic implications of the recent rapid and erratic rises in world energy prices.

Second, and perhaps more abstractly, the issue of energy security, in being couched in terms of energy supply, arguably misses the point.

Continuity of service

Energy security is really a second-order concern, subordinate to the security of energy services. All consumers, whether industrial, commercial or domestic are concerned, not with the security of energy directly, but rather with the security of the services they receive.

Again, this perhaps subtle re-framing of the security issue as one of demand as opposed to supply, leads to a very different policy response.

Whilst maintaining secure supplies of energy is of course important, the most immediate and cost effective means of maintaining security of energy services is to reduce their energy intensity.

Standby button (BBC)
Estimated annual CO2 emissions from devices left on standby:
Stereos - 1,600,000 tonnes
Videos - 960,000 tonnes
TVs - 480,000 tonnes
Consoles - 390,000 tonnes
DVD players - 100,000 tonnes
Set-top boxes - 60,000 tonnes
(Source: Energy Savings Trust)

To conclude, Tyndall Centre research clearly demonstrates that if we are to act to seriously mitigate carbon dioxide emissions soon, a wide range of demand and supply options exist.

Whether nuclear power is included in these options is a matter of choice - nuclear power is not a prerequisite of the UK meeting its 60% carbon dioxide reduction target.

Moreover, if the government were to genuinely frame the debate in terms of the energy system rather than energy supply, a clear and relatively unambiguous policy programme emerges.

Whilst reviewing energy supply alternatives is important for the medium-to-long term, the decision of what suite of supply options to consider is not as pressing as is generally believed.

By contrast, developing and implementing an explicit and enforceable, yet flexible, energy efficiency programme offers real and almost immediate benefits in terms of carbon dioxide emissions, economic competitiveness and energy-service security.

Without being too flippant, it's a no-brainer, but one, I doubt, that we will adopt.

The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research comprises nine UK research institutions and is funded by three Research Councils - NERC, EPSRC and ESRC. Dr Kevin Anderson is based at the University of Manchester and looks at the options for reducing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases nationally and globally

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