Here’s an under-reported fact: electricity use is declining in advanced industrial economies. It peaked about ten years ago, give or take. Here’s a graph of the World Bank’s data:
When it first began to tail off, it was assumed that it was the recession and that demand would pick up again afterwards. That hasn’t happened, and there are a number of different reasons why.
First, heavy industry has moved overseas. Part of the decline in the West is picked up by the rising energy use in China and elsewhere, with global supply chains shifting manufacturing to cheaper locations. But electricity use is falling domestically too, so it’s bigger than that. Ordinary households are using less, and that’s down to more efficient appliances.
Over the years, efficiency standards have improved. This graph is from the EU, which has driven those efficiency measures. The fridge trend is particularly significant, because they’re on all the time and have traditionally been the biggest electricity user in the home. (If you’re wondering why TVs buck the trend, that was the brief fashion for plasma TVs, before they were replaced by more efficient LEDs.) Light bulbs aren’t on the graph, but they’ve gone through two big shifts – from incandescent bulbs to compact fluorescents, and then to LEDs.
Other factors in the decline include distributed solar. In some contexts the statistics note the addition of solar power as a decline in energy demand rather than adding capacity. Another trend in Britain is a decline in cooking at home, which has reduced domestic energy use.
The overall decline in electricity use may not last forever. Electrification of transport, whether that’s cars or trains, will push demand for electricity back up again. But there’s more that can be done on the efficiency front too, so it may be bit of a wobbly plateau for a while.
There are a bunch of implications here for the profits of big energy companies, for energy policy and so on. But what I wanted to highlight is that there’s an enough point for electricity. Not everything grows forever. As Chris Goodall puts it, “the wealthier nations have got as much power as they will ever need.”
For some countries, energy use needs to come down. Why do Canadians need three times more electricity than Brits? There are extremes of temperature that we don’t have to deal with, but still – room for improvement there, eh? North America could do with the kind of efficiency standards that the EU has adopted. Other countries are going to be expanding. But the future is convergence at a point of sufficiency, not an endless upwards graph of rising demand.