UK’s electricity use is falling – and no one knows why

The UK was the only country in the EU to reduce its electricity consumption last year, with power use growing or stable across the rest of the bloc’s 28 member states.

Britain’s appetite for power has been waning for more than a decade as industrial activity declined and businesses and households opted for more energy efficient lighting and appliances.

But an analysis of official figures by campaign group Sandbag found the fall between 2016 and 2017 was one of the biggest in several years, marking a striking divergence with the rest of Europe.

The UK’s power consumption fell nearly 2% from 355 terawatt hours to 348 tWh, while it rose across the EU as a whole by 0.7% from 3,239 to 3,262 tWh.

“The 2017 fall is large and is at odds with other European country, and puts the UK clearly on the road to lower electricity consumption,” said Dave Jones, the carbon and power analyst at Sandbag.

Overall, electricity demand has fallen by 9% in the UK in the past seven years, the sharpest decline in the union. Meanwhile, Poland chalked up the biggest rise, at 9% over the same period.

The EU increase is the third year in a row, and suggests the push for economic growth is winning out over energy efficiency measures. The rise was driven by GDP growth, a growing population swelled by the influx of immigrants and more industrial activity, Sandbag said.

The group said a small amount of the growth had also come from new sources of demand, such as the electricity needed to run bitcoin-mining servers and the 800,000 electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles in the EU by the end of 2017.

But the growing disparity between the UK and EU has puzzled experts. The gap cannot be explained away solely by shrinking industrial production in Britain or slower economic growth in 2017, of 1.8% versus a forecast of 2.3% for the EU.

Weather does not explain the difference either. Britain was relatively mild last year with the average temperature 0.7C above the long-term mean, said the Met Office, but Europe as a whole was 0.8C above the long-term average, said the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts.

Jones said: “Reasons are hard to identify. It is likely other EU countries’ air-conditioning binge has been much stronger than that in the UK. Perhaps UK shops are better at stocking energy efficient appliances or UK consumers are shopping for energy efficient products.”

Simon Evans, the policy editor at analysts CarbonBrief, said. “This is one of the least-reported and most significant stories in the UK power sector. Since 2005, the UK has saved the equivalent of two-and-a-half Hinkley Point Cs [a nuclear power station], a trend that started several years before the financial crisis.”

Sandbag also found that for the first time across the EU, renewable sources of power, excluding hydro, overtook coal. Together, wind, solar and biomass accounted for 20.9% of the union’s electricity mix in 2017, up from 9.7% in 2010.

“This is incredible progress, considering just five years ago, coal generation was more than twice that of wind, solar and biomass,” the report said.