Energy, Climate Change and Brexit: Avoiding a future energy crisis

27Nov / 2018

Energy, Climate Change and Brexit: Avoiding a future energy crisis

If we want to avoid a future energy crisis similar to that experienced in 1973, we need to dramatically reduce our dependency on imported primary energy. How are existing solutions working for us and which are yet to be put into place?

In October 1973, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) stopped oil exports to most western nations. In the UK, oil prices quadrupled resulting in a three-day week, rolling power cuts, food shortages and an annual inflation rate of 24%.

In response to this western governments set up the International Energy Agency (IEA) to be a policy advisor and provider of statistics on the oil and energy sectors. The UK government also responded by researching the nation’s energy flows with the first full year’s figures published for 1974. These graphs are now published every year and give an important insight into what keeps our country running. With the current challenges of climate change and shifting world geo-politics, it is ever more important to understand the UK flow of energy.

UK Energy Flow Chart 1974

Figure 1. UK Energy Flows 1974 [N.B. 1 tonne of oil equivalent (toe) equals 397 therms]

In 1974 (see Figure 1), the UK produced and imported 99.2 thousand million therms (tmt) of primary energy (left hand side of the graph). The middle part of the graph indicates the conversion into electricity, while the right-hand side shows the sectors of final consumption with a total of 58.5 thousand million therms.

The striking points of note are:

  • The quantity of coal produced in the UK (24.7 tmt) compared to the quantity of imported oil (48 tmt)
  • The 72% energy losses incurred from converting 26.3 tmt of primary energy into 7.3 tmt of electricity
  • The main consumers of energy are the industry, domestic and transport sectors, in that order of consumption

The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming states that, “… limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require “rapid and far-reaching” transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities. Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050. This means that any remaining emissions would need to be balanced by removing CO2 from the air.”

It’s against this profound warning that we have regular news of developments in renewable energy production. In September 2018 the Walney Extension opened off the coast of Barrow in Furness (see Figure 2). Currently this is the world’s largest offshore wind farm and can produce 659 megawatts of electricity. This sounds like a lot of energy and is equivalent to about 6,200 tonnes of oil equivalent (toe) per year.

Walney Extension

Figure 2. Walney Extension

So, twenty one years on from the Kyoto Protocol and three years on from the Paris Agreement, where is the UK’s energy flows now?  The Department for Business, Energy & Industry Strategy (BEIS) published the 2017 energy flow in July (see Figure 3). This shows that our use of coal has all but been eliminated and has been largely replaced by ‘lower carbon’ natural gas. The other points of note are:

  1. The main consumers of energy are still the transport, domestic and industry sectors, but the order has now reversed
  2. 54% of the UK’s primary energy is now imported
  3. The primary energy conversion and transmission losses in electricity consumer supply have only dropped from 72% to 64% in forty years
  4. Most troubling of all, the move to renewable energy has resulted in only 22.2 million toe or primary energy being displaced. That amounts to just 8% of the total primary energy production and imports.


uk energy flow chart 2017

Figure 3. UK Energy Flow 2017 (BEIS)


It’s clear we need to be much more ambitious in our reduction in greenhouse gas emissions than ever before. We need to reduce our consumption, drive fewer miles, take fewer foreign holidays, eat less meat and dramatically increase our renewable energy production. However, this may not be sufficient.

Currently, the biggest energy use in the UK economy is transport and moving the transport fleet to electric vehicles is likely to be inadequate. The need to increase our renewable electricity from the current 5.8 million toe to around 90 million toe is ambitious to say the least, as is the idea of tripling the capacity of the national grid. In the short term, a new form of fuel is required.

A possible solution is moving to a hydrogen economy. This potentially would be a zero-carbon emissions source of energy if we used steam reforming of natural gas to produce hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The hydrogen could be piped into the existing national gas grid while the carbon dioxide was piped into depleted offshore petroleum reservoirs for geological sequestration. Hydrogen, could fuel our transport, heat our homes and power our industry and burning hydrogen would only produce water vapour.

If we want to avoid a future energy crisis similar to that experienced in 1973, we need to dramatically reduce our dependency on imported primary energy. Home grown renewables would help and perhaps Brexit should also make us take a closer look at the sources of natural gas beneath our feet.