Improving energy efficiency helps deliver on all the key goals of energy policy – affordability, security and sustainability – trying to understand the future of energy without thinking closely about demand is not possible. Prof Nick Eyre explores why energy demand matters.
Energy demand matters
Improving energy efficiency helps deliver on all the key goals of energy policy – affordability, security and sustainability. Many statements of energy policy now recognise this. However, most then go on to focus very largely on energy supply. This is a mistake; trying to understand the future of energy without thinking closely about demand is not possible.
An example of the problem is the idea that energy demand is simply driven by GDP. It is still an assumption embedded in many macro-models. But, based on experience in the UK, we know it is not valid. Energy demand has fallen since 1970, whilst GDP has trebled. Of course there are complex reasons, but one thing is clear: if energy demand had trebled over the same period, our energy costs, energy imports and carbon emissions would have all been unsustainably high. Improved energy productivity has been central to a viable energy system.
So understanding energy demand has always been important, but the new context of stabilising the global climate reinforces this.
Reducing energy demand will continue to be an important goal, but it is no longer the only challenge. As variable renewable energy resources come to the fore, electricity demand will need to become more flexible. And not all uses of energy can be converted to electricity. Decarbonisation of heat, industrial processes and freight transport will probably require switching to other zero carbon fuels. We need to understand how to reduce, decarbonise and flex energy demand, and to do all of these in an energy transition that needs to happen by mid-century, against a background of other profound changes from digitalisation to global politics.
At the heart of understanding the changes needed are two question: ‘What are the purposes for which society uses energy?’ and ‘How do we use energy to provide those energy services?’ They are simple questions to state, but the answers are often complex. No single academic subject can answer them alone; we need to work together. In the jargon of the research community they are inter-disciplinary, socio-technical questions.
Even with better understanding that research can provide, the energy transition will be complex to deliver. How can it be done? The truthful answer is that no-one has an exact blueprint. However good our analysis, it will involve learning by doing. So researchers cannot work alone, but need to engage closely with other stakeholders, at scales for small energy users through to global businesses and institutions.
These challenges set the agenda for our new Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions (CREDS). We aim to learn from the past, but to apply that understanding to the new challenges we now face. And we will work with colleagues in innovative businesses and in policy-making to do that.