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2.3 Forecasting UK energy demand

In some ways, predicting demand for energy — or indeed any major resource — is more difficult for a single country than for the world (Section 2.1">Section 2.1). Political decisions and regime changes have a dis-proportionally greater effect on energy usage within a single country, and the typically long lead times of major projects carry more significance. Lead times of 5–10 years are common for major developments such as power stations, oil fields, mines and quarries, all of which require substantial initial investment that depends on a guaranteed return at the culmination of the project. So, although lead times present a difficulty to forecasters, they are also one of the most important reasons for accurate forecasting in the first place.

In 2003, the UK Department of Trade and Industry published a White Paper entitled Our Energy Future — Creating a Low Carbon Economy. This Paper presented a general scenario for the UK energy system in 2020, which you can think about in the context of the UK potential for the alternative energy sources:

  • ‘Much of our energy will be imported, either from or through a single European market embracing more than 25 countries.
  • The backbone of the electricity system will still be a market-based grid, balancing the supply of large power stations. But some of those large power stations will be offshore marine plants, including wave, tidal and windfarms. Generally smaller onshore windfarms will also generating. The market will need to be able to handle intermittent generation by using backup capacity when weather conditions reduce or cut off these sources.
  • There will be much more local generation, in part from medium to small local/community power plant, fuelled by locally grown biomass, from locally generated waste, from local wind sources, or possibly from local wave and tidal generators. These will feed into local distributed networks, which can sell excess capacity to the grid. Plant will also increasingly generate heat for local use.
  • There will be much more micro-generation for example from CHP [combined heat and power] plant, fuel cells in buildings, or photovoltaics. This will also generate excess capacity from time to time, which will be sold back into the distributed network.
  • New homes will be designed to need very little energy and will perhaps even achieve zero carbon emissions. The existing building stock will increasingly adopt energy efficiency measures. Many buildings will have the capacity at least to reduce their demand on the grid, for example by using solar heating systems to provide some of their water heating needs, if not to generate electricity to sell back to the local network.’
(Department of Trade and Industry, 2003, pp. 18 and 19)

The predicted shift away from fossil fuel dependence towards renewable energy sources is familiar by now, but the other striking theme in this scenario is the increasing emphasis on local power generation, as opposed to regional or national systems. This is intriguing, predicting a return to more ‘primitive’ times when the onus was on the individual to harness energy for their family or village, rather than on centralised provision. Alongside this localised generation comes an expectation that energy efficiency and conservation will rise markedly, through design of dwellings and appliances, resulting in a decrease in overall demand for energy.

  • What other prediction about demand is notably absent from the scenario as summarised above?

  • There is no mention of consumers having to reduce their demand voluntarily, i.e. by reducing their implied standard of living. In fact, this point is seldom made in politically driven scenarios, for obvious reasons.

One group of scenarios, driven primarily by concerns over environmental damage, especially climate change, centres on large reductions in demand for energy. For example, the UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution published four energy scenarios in the year 2000; of these, three forecast reductions in total energy demand of between 36% and 47% by 2050. These reductions were aimed mainly at achieving 60% reductions in the 1997 level of carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, a target set around the same time by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Such scenarios reflect the groundswell of scientific data, and increasingly public and political opinion, that environmental change is the most pressing problem facing human society in the 21st century.

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