A simple question: What percentage of the United Kingdom and the United States’ electricity is used by houses? If you think it’s the majority, then you will be disappointed to find out that it is only 35% in the UK, and 36% in the US. The UK and US are in fact higher than most developed countries, Germany for example is down at 26%. Despite this electricity generation is very often framed purely in terms of residential electricity supply, completely ignoring the much more important non-industrial sectors. A particular example is media reports on new wind farms.
Take this piece of boiler plate from a news story about a new wind farm:
The first phase of the London Array project, around 12 miles off the coasts of Kent and Essex in the Thames Estuary, will see 175 turbines generating enough power to supply more than 470,000 homes.
Now, whether the news report is about a wind farm or a nuclear power plant the power generated is almost always put in terms of how many houses the wind farm or power plant can provide electricity for. Strangely street lighting, shops and industry aren’t thought to be worth mentioning. What we have here is a rather simple marketing trick on the behalf of the power company to make something appear to generate more electricity than it is, and it consistently gets regurgitated by journalists.
Let’s turn to one of the most common, and most misleading mistakes in news reports on energy: mixing up electricity and energy. An example from Bloomberg a few days ago:
Wind energy has become China’s third-largest energy source, behind coal and hydropower.
This sounds very impressive, yet what it really should say is that wind power is the third largest supplier of electricity, not energy. How inaccurate this claim is can be seen by considering the actual energy mix in China in 2009:
Wind is up a bit to around 1% currently, but it clearly has a long way to go to make it number 3. Media reports that make electricity appear to be a much bigger contributor to climate change than it is are remarkably easy to find. And as an example of this I will offer up my own blog, with its consistent focus on electricity. Yet, look at where America’s carbon emissions come from:
Only one third comes from electricity. Is this focus wrong? Based on the current consensus among UK environmentalists the UK should aim to fully decarbonise electricity by 2030, before other sectors are decarbonised. There are good arguments for and against this target. However the key argument here should be one from ignorance. There is a huge amount of uncertainty over the costs of reducing emissions in each sector, and this uncertainty implies that what we need is flexibility and pragmatism and not a very narrow focus on reducing electricity emissions. So, it is perhaps time for this blog to change its focus, or perhaps someone can convince me otherwise.