The Waste of Power #1

When people talk about “energy efficiency”, they usually mean “end use energy efficiency” – how many miles to the gallon or watts to the lumen. They also sometimes mean “end use energy thrift”, meaning they pay more attention to their energy use, and keep it pared down.

However, the largest source of energy inefficiency is systemic, for example, the losses in the electricity generation sector. Let’s just dip into the figures to check. The sources of energy data about the United Kingdom that I make use of most frequently are the Energy Trends quarterly report from the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), and the annual DECC Digest of United Kingdom Energy Statistics (DUKES).

From the 2010 DUKES report, the “Electricity flow chart 2009 (TWh)” in Chapter 5 shows that Coal used in power stations was 288.6 Terawatt hours (TWh) for 2009, and Natural Gas fed into the electricity generation system was 356.2 TWh. The “Conversion, Transmission & Distribution Losses” amounted to 565.9 TWh.

From Chapter 2 of the 2010 DUKES report, the “Coal flow chart 2009 (millions of tonnes of coal)” showed that 40.1 million tonnes of coal were fed into the power stations in 2009, so that equates to the 288.6 TWh from Chapter 5. This chart also shows that imports of coal amounted to 38.2 million tonnes, by deduction therefore, equivalent to 274.9 TWh.

In Chapter 4, the “Natural gas flow chart 2009 (TWh)” shows that 355.7 TWh of Natural Gas went to the power stations, and that imports of Natural Gas were 455.8 TWh.

A simple calculation shows that the combined total of the imported Coal and Natural Gas in 2009 was 730.7 TWh, and the losses from the entire electricity generation system was 565.9 TWh, which was 77% of the imported amount.

So, let’s put that another way – over three quarters of the energy that we imported in the form of Coal and Natural Gas to keep our electricity generation system running was wasted. That’s right – wasted. That means that the efficiency of using imported Coal and Natural Gas to make electricity is only 23%.

Now, compare this to the efficiency of energy conversion in wind turbines, I beg you, and decide for yourself which offers the better deal. The free range wind, of course, is and will remain, free of charge.

With a coal- and Natural Gas-fired power generation system this inefficient, the UK is highly dependent on imports of primary energy. Yet asking domestic and corporate consumers to change their behaviour by conserving energy is not going to solve this root problem. I am of the view that asking people to change their energy habits just deflects attention away from the changes that are necessary in the basic power production system.

One of the reasons this state of affairs is accepted is because of the historical development of electricity generation – a long chain of decisions has led to a situation where the consistency of the supply and its quantity are more important than making its production more efficient. Inefficiency is accepted in order to guarantee delivery of a high quality, versatile energy – but it could be so much better.


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