electricity demand

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Image source: Taiga Company.

Image source: Taiga Company.

1) If you buy just one new appliance in 2010, make it a really efficient fridge-freezer. The improvements in the energy use of the best fridge-freezers have been really impressive in the last few years. If you have an old refrigerator, it may be responsible for as much as a sixth of your electricity bill. A good new machine might use less than a half as much power, particularly if it is not too large. A second benefit is that by choosing to buy a really efficient refrigerator you will be sending a clear signal to the manufacturers that energy consumption matters. An impressive new web site – www.energytariff.co.uk – allows you to compare the electricity used by almost all the appliances currently in UK shops. You can make well-informed choices from your computer.

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Let’s face it: energy efficiency is boring when compared to the (relative) excitement of developing new sources of low-carbon electricity or heat. The popular science magazines are full of articles on new forms of solar panel and the latest designs for wind turbines. Improving the insulation of ordinary homes, shifting to LED lighting or increasing the take-up of heat pumps rarely command the attention of editors.

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Wittingly or unwittingly, many manufacturers make it difficult to compare the electricity consumption of home appliances such as TVs and refrigerators. Although many appliances have been through standard EU tests and then been awarded a letter grade for energy efficiency, these grades are increasingly unhelpful in distinguishing between the excellent and the merely satisfactory. As in British school exams, an A grade doesn’t mean much because it covers such as wide range of performance.

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Copyright: Monkey Business - Fotolia.com.

Copyright: Monkey Business - Fotolia.com.

Electricity demand has fallen substantially in the last couple of years and shows no sign of recovery. The cause could be:

  • The impact of economic slowdown
  • Better energy efficiency
  • Demand reduction because of the high prices seen in recent years.

If the cause is the contraction in the economy, then we can expect electricity use to rise again when growth resumes. On other hand if it is energy efficiency, then it is reasonable to expect that the reduction will persist. Electricity demand is usually thought to be insensitive to the price of power. If it is high prices that are driving usage reductions, we have gained important information about how to reduce electricity use, and thus carbon emissions.

The conclusion of the analysis in this short note is that almost all of the reduction in energy demand comes from cuts in usage in big industrial and commercial users. This means that the most likely cause of the cut is the fall in economic activity. Household demand seems to have remained about constant.

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Smart meters will work with real-time energy displays showing energy use around the home. Photograph: Energy Retailers Association/PA.

Smart meters will work with real-time energy displays showing energy use around the home. Photograph: Energy Retailers Association/PA.

Monday’s announcement by the UK government for smart meters for every home is heavy on ‘empowering consumers’ with real-time knowledge of our energy use and therefore helping us reduce our consumption. But we shouldn’t assume that this is the real reason why the UK is pushing ahead with the compulsory replacement of all meters.

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The existing Kingsnorth power station. Image source: E.ON.

The existing Kingsnorth power station. Image source: E.ON.

E.ON’s £1bn plan for a new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth is waiting for approval from the UK government. Other generators have shifted away from coal. Drax, which owns by far the largest coal power station in the UK, is investing in biomass. Other companies have focused on new gas plants. Why is the world’s largest investor-owned utility pushing ahead with a project to burn coal without carbon capture?

The answer, unsurprisingly, is that burning coal to generate electricity is extremely profitable. Very low prices for emissions permits and tumbling coal costs mean that a profit-seeking management team is highly incentivised to try to push for permission to use coal in power stations. This article provides the background calculations for an estimate that the new Kingsnorth will generate an operating profit of about £300m a year if current fuel and carbon prices persist. Additionally, it also tries to show that the cost of fitting CCS equipment and running the plant to capture the large majority of all carbon emissions is likely to add no more than about 1.5p per kilowatt hour to the cost of generating electricity at current coal and carbon prices. This means that a new coal fired power station with CCS may have operating costs only marginally above gas power plants

Nevertheless, E.ON has just asked for government subsidy to install CCS at Kingsnorth from day one. The purpose of this article is to offer an estimate of the maximum the government ought to offer E.ON in order to get it to invest in CCS prior to opening the new power station.

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The Maldives. Image source: Primetravels.com.

The Maldives. Image source: Primetravels.com.

The Maldives will be the first country to be overwhelmed by the effect of climate change. The republic is a collection of coral atolls with maximum heights of one or two metres above sea level. Climate change is increasing worldwide sea levels and the atolls will probably go underwater by the end of the century.

The 300,000-400,000 people who live on the Maldives are not responsible for global warming. Their emissions per head (even including aviation fuels for incoming international tourism) are less than a seventh of typical European levels.

Many countries have set ambitious targets for the reduction of carbon emissions. The government of the Maldives seeks to encourage this trend by going one step further with a plan for near carbon neutrality within ten years.

This is an immensely challenging target. Chris Goodall (author of this blog) and Mark Lynas, the prize-winning climate change author, were asked to provide a short outline of how it might be achieved and what it might cost.[1]

In the rest of this note, we show our calculations. We will be the first to acknowledge that this work is incomplete. Although it was tempting to conduct fieldwork in some of the most attractive island resorts, we did our analysis using publicly available information and with help from officials attached to the Maldives government.

Our work shows that near neutrality is possible, but expensive. It will take at least $1.1bn for this small island state. The Maldives imports almost all its fuels in the form of refined oil products. Rates of financial return to the investment therefore depend largely on the price of oil. If expectations of future oil prices exceed $100 a barrel, we judge that the plan is sufficiently attractive to be financeable by international institutions such as the World Bank.

Comments on this work will be very gratefully received.

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In today’s Independent newspaper (London, Monday 23 February) I argue that we may need to accept some new nuclear power stations. I put forward the view that the trench warfare between the pro-nuclear groups and those that support renewables means that progress towards ‘decarbonising’ electricity generation in the UK is too slow. We probably need to invest in many different types of non fossil-fuel generation as rapidly as we can if we are to meet the tough targets for UK emissions reduction so painfully won by groups such as Friends of the Earth. We no longer have the luxury of ruling out nuclear expansion.

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Photograph: Christopher Thomond. Source: Guardian.


The new Conservative policy document on energy is keen to emphasise how smart it is. At its core are proposals for smart meters, smart grids, and smart battery charging. The enthusiasm for these technologies is almost palpable. On one page, the word ‘smart’ occurs eight times. But readers of the policy proposals are largely left in the dark about what all these intelligent devices will do. David Cameron’s comments about building ‘an electricity internet’ didn’t shed much light either.

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The Pentland Firth

The Pentland Firth
The Pentland Firth. Image source: The Crown Estate.

The funnel of water between the north-east tip of Scotland and the Orkney Islands contains some of the most powerful tidal energy in the world. The exploitable resource at the time of the fastest running tides may be as much 8 gigawatts. One source I have talked to suggests the figure could even be as high as 20 gigawatts. As I write this note, the National Grid’s website gives an estimate of the electricity use at this moment – about 55 gigawatts at peak-time on a winter evening. Be in no doubt, the Pentland Firth is the single most important source of renewable energy in the UK. The power concentrated in this narrow stretch of water could comfortably provide London’s electricity need. And it is entirely predictable to within a few percent every minute of every day. The tidal power will peak twice every 24 hours in a cycle that the Grid will be able to plan for decades in advance.

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