European primary energy consumption has fallen 9% since 2006. Or has it?

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European Union energy consumption peaked in 2006 and has fallen 9% since then. You have maybe ready about this claim. Or maybe you have better things to do. Dogs need to be walked, and EU energy consumption statistics are first badly presented – try reading the official spreadsheets – and confusing.

But, if you have heard this claim, here is a problem. The way the EU accounts for primary energy consumption has a problem. (They also account for final energy consumption, if you are attempting to keep track.)

Here is a straightforward definition of primary energy consumption. It is the energy content of the fuel that you burn. A tonne of coal, a barrel of oil, a cubic foot of gas – barrels, feet, why are we still using these units? – when burned will produce a known amount of heat and we measure that in joules. Roughly speaking, it’s the heat that is measured by primary energy consumption.

But what about renewables such as wind and solar? They don’t produce heat, but electricity. And here things get problematic and unresolvable. There are two approaches to measuring the primary energy consumption of renewables. One is to measure the energy content of the electricity generated. The other is to ask how much fossil fuel energy would have been needed to provide this energy.

In the latter case it is normally assumed that a 38% or so efficient fossil fuel power plant would have done the generating. In other words, X units of renewable electricity becomes X/0.38 units of primary energy consumption.

That’s in the second case. What about the first. Well, instead of a 38% efficient power plant, effectively we are assuming a 100% efficient power plant. This causes problems.

Let’s say we replace a 40% efficient coal power plant with a wind farm. If we use the first method for calculating primary energy consumption then the primary energy consumption related to producing this electricity will more than halve. But what reason is there to assume this? Have we really doubled efficiency?

And this is exactly how the EU calculates the primary energy consumption of renewables. They only look at the electricity generated.

Using this method primary energy consumption fell by 9% between 2006 and 2013. I show this below.


Now, let’s adjust these figures so that we are getting a more apples to apples change for wind and solar. It makes little sense to assume they are 100% efficient. This just makes the EU seem to be increasing its energy efficiency far too rapidly. Let’s go with 50%.

Total primary energy consumption from wind and solar was 27.16 million tonnes of oil equivalent in 2013. So, we’ll need to double that. Here is what the adjusted figures look like.


Instead of a 8.9% drop, you get a 7.7% drop. Yes, clearly this is not much of a factor today. But, wind and solar remain marginal source of energy, despite the nonsense you will read about renewables revolutions.

However, in future the figures for wind and solar are likely to increase significantly, which will result in the EU record a nonsensical reduction in primary energy consumption.

And, as far as I know that is exactly what the EU plans to do. Supposedly the 2030 “non-binding” efficiency target will relate purely to primary energy consumption. (Or so I have been told by someone who probably understands these issues well. But try finding out how the energy consumption is defined on the EC website.)

Anyway, if you’ve got this far I suggest you walk the dog instead of pondering the absurdities of EU energy debates.