Energy Security & Fossil Fuel Dependence

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From Climate Scepticism


An issue that we hear about increasingly is energy security. The oxymorons in government broke off a bit of DBEIS (they liked to call it “Bays” rather than “debase” for some reason) to form DESNZ, the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, whose titular motives are firmly at cross purposes. The mooted successor is supposedly DUNCE, the Department for Unicorns and No-Carbon Energy. (Whenever I see DESNZ written down, my brain makes a connection to the word “denazify,” but that’s just me I guess.) My advice to our government is that renaming things generally does not help. It just confuses everyone. MAFF survived for a long time (50 years?) before there was DEFRA. After that, departments have split and merged and been renamed at an accelerating rate, almost as if making acronyms was their ultimate purpose. From DEFRA was born DECC, which gave rise to BEIS, and now Denazify, I mean DESNZ. But I digress. What about the actual stats? These are as the previous edition in this series taken from Energy Trends tables available here.

1. Energy security; import dependency

Since 2010, DECC and its successors have reported statistics on the UK’s import dependency. How much of our energy are we reliant on other countries for, and how has this changed over time? Well, we flipped from a net exporter to a net importer in 2003:

After 2013, the worst year (so far) when we depended on imports for 48% of our energy, things have settled down to a stubborn mid to high 30s percent.

Another way to look at this is to have exports and imports on the same figure. The net is closely similar to the import dependency percentage in the form of the graph.

Energy demand has not gone up; in fact it has gone down. Our increasing demand for imported energy came not from a rapacious hunger for more, but from a withering of home-grown production – coupled with an overall decline in energy use. From 2001, the consumption of energy in the UK has gone down quite markedly (-25% ish). Some might call this a success story based on improved efficiency. I think it is more likely a tragedy of deindustrialisation.

In fact if you look at the energy consumption by sector over the past half century, it’s clear that energy use in industry has gone down quite markedly. It is now at about a third of the level it was in 1970. Domestic consumption meanwhile has stubbornly resisted attempts to cut it. Perhaps those attempts are bearing fruit for individual dwellings, but there are now more dwellings, so the net decrease is small.

2. Fossil fuel dependency

The other critical indicator of our energy system’s performance is supposedly our dependence on fossil fuels. Two statistics are presented in Energy Trends: the “low carbon” share of energy, and the “fossil fuel dependency” of energy.

The two proportions do not add up to 1, because net imports of leccy and the contribution of “non biodegradable waste” are not included in either.

Those with an eagle eye might be thinking that there is something missing even so. That certainly seems to be the case: here, burning woodchips and waste for electricity counts as low carbon. Together they make up about 10% of overall energy consumption in the UK. So depending on whether you believe they are low carbon sources of energy, the low carbon share is either 20.1% (DESNZ’s preferred figure), or 11.0% (excluding energy from waste and bioenergy).

It is possible to argue the toss on whether burning rubbish and/or woodchips is “low carbon.” I don’t think it is, since it emits carbon dioxide at the point of generation – that’s fairly obvious. The other low carbon generators like wind turbines might have plenty of carbon dioxide emissions along the way, but when they actually turn wind into leccy, they don’t produce any.

So to my way of thinking at least, the UK’s energy system is 11% of the way to Net Zero.

There is of course another minor issue, which is that the embodied carbon dioxide in imported goods is not counted as energy. However, it used energy in its creation, and that energy was unlikely to be “low carbon.”

3. Dispatchable vs. Non-Dispatchable Electricity

One factor that the stats bods at DESNZ do not find time to dwell on in their time series is how our electricity generating mix has evolved towards weather-dependent sources. The following figure shows that we are increasingly dependent on the whims of Aeolus for our juice. Non-dispatchable is wind and solar; hydropower is counted as dispatchable.


As the North Sea gas fields have begun to deflate, our dependence on imports of energy has risen to worrying levels. We have also made little progress towards “decarbonisation”, unless you count burning trees as a low carbon enterprise. I find myself wondering, if so little has been achieved after so much pain: will we ever see the farthest shore?

Featured image

Dall.E: A pylon being struck by lightning