Domestic Energy use in the UK - Power Conversion, Transport and Use
An A-level R&A project by Graham Lamburn (Spring 2000)
This project mainly looks at the efficiencies of using gas or electricity
for heating our homes and comes up with a dramatic and surprising conclusion. In
the UK, at present, using electricity to heat homes, instead of directly burning
gas, wastes 280 TWh of energy - enough to boil a body of water 9 times the
volume of Lake Windermere! (2,304,000,000 cubic metres!).
The overall efficiency of an electric heating system is on average
only about 36%, compared with typical modern gas central heating efficiencies of
about 80% or higher. Thus gas should be only used as a
direct source of heat, rather than via conversion to electricity, and the
Government should NOT allow more gas-powered electricity generating stations to
be built unless these are small local ones that are 'combined heat and power'
and that supply the 'waste' heat directly to other local uses.
I was initially made aware of this issue by press coverage from the new
Yorkshire Super-Grid power line (see http://www.revolt.co.uk). I then had a look through my physics textbooks to
see what they offered on this subject. They confirmed that it should be an
interesting and worthwhile topic for me to research. My father gave me two old
Open University texts [Refs. 7 and 8], that he felt might be helpful.
Reference 2 had an interesting energy flow diagram that came from the
Department of Energy, but was printed in 1984 and was rather out of date. I next
obtained the latest version of the flow diagram, contained in Reference 4, which
I obtained from the HMSO. This provided me with the bulk of the data that I
used, and also gave further references to follow up, including the National Grid
Company Seven Year Statement.
I have concluded that, in general, it is very wasteful to use electricity to
heat our homes. I find it surprising that we do not have an obvious national
energy policy to give guidance on these matters, although on a commercial
website [Ref. 11] I have found that a government-funded "Energy Saving Trust"
will refund £200 of the cost of approved condensing gas boilers.
Background to this project:
In February 2000 there was some media coverage [Ref. 1] about a long new 400
kV power line that the National Grid Company are starting to build through
Yorkshire in order to bring electricity from Scotland and the North East, down
to the South East. One claim that the objectors made was that the electricity
should be generated near to where it was needed as large amounts of energy were
wasted as heat carrying the power along high power electricity lines.
On starting to research into this subject, I discovered one statistic, [page
17, Ref.4] which states that 29% of energy in the UK is used for domestic
purposes, mainly heating. I thought that it would be interesting to find out the
difference in efficiency of using gas or electricity for this purpose.
If there are significantly different efficiencies between these two types of
system, then this should be taken into account in national energy policy. I was
also interested to find out more about the U.K. electricity system.
My investigation started with my two physics textbooks [Ref. 2, pp.405 - 470,
and Ref. 3, pp185 - 190]. These provided me with the background to these issues
and referred to other useful sources of data. I needed to discover what energy
sources and fuels were used for background heating purposes and then estimate
the power losses in both electricity generation and in the long distance
transport of electricity along wires. This could be compared with the losses
involved in piping gas to the houses and using that as the energy source to
produce heat directly.
One particularly interesting diagram in Ref.1 was an 'Energy Flow Chart 1983'
that had been extracted from a UK Government Department of Energy publication. I
decided that it would be useful to obtain a more up-to-date version and compare
them. It is now published in an annual publication from the Department of Trade
and Industry [Ref. 4] and I obtained the latest edition, which is for 1999. I
found this to have many tables of energy use relevant to my project.
This referred to another publication that seemed likely to be useful. This is
an annual report from the National Grid Company that sets out UK electricity
generation and transmission. I obtained a 1996 copy [Ref. 5] and also looked at
the 1999 version that is on the NGC web site [Ref. 6]. This helped me understand
the reason that the new Yorkshire powerline [Ref. 1] was being built. I
discovered that too much electricity is generated in Scotland and the North East
of England, whereas the South and South West areas of England do not generate
enough for their needs. This can be clearly seen in Appendix 1 (from NGC SYS),
which shows typical major power flows around England, and Appendix 2 (NGC SYS
Fig. 8.1), which shows the need for large amounts of extra electricity in
Southern England. Appendix 3 (from NGC SYS fig A.1) shows the geographic
location of major electricity power stations and National Grid power lines
Two Open University publications [Ref. 7 & 8] also proved useful,
especially Ref.8 which briefly addressed the actual issue that I was
Other web sites that I looked at were Friends of the Earth, who run an energy
efficiency campaign, and OFGEM (the Office of the Gas and Electricity Markets),
the newly combined electricity and gas UK Energy Regulators.
The Scale of the Problem:
Table 1 - Energy consumption by final user from Ref. 4 p. 17
The total energy used in the U.K. in 1998 is given as 234,931,000 tonnes of
oil equivalent. This is the equivalent of 9,836,561 TJ or 2,732,247,500 MWh. One
kWh is generally known as one "unit" of electricity. A conversion table is given
in Appendix 4.
In carrying out this research, I have been surprised at the level of losses
in the generation and transmission of electricity through U.K. power-lines.
Losses occur in the conversion of raw materials into electricity, and
"transport supply losses" due to resistive losses in the cables and equipment. I
will discuss the overall efficiency of the "electricity cycle", from conversion
and production, to usage in homes.
In 1998, the major electricity producers supplied a maximum load of 56.3 GW
(Gigawatts) of electricity. Nuclear and conventional fossil fuel power stations
ran at a thermal efficiency of just over 36%. The more efficient combined cycle
gas turbine stations managed almost 47% efficiency, and produce about 22% of the
total electricity. About 2% is produced by "renewables" (i.e. mainly
hydro-electric, with negligible amounts supplied by wind and solar energy).
[These figures are taken from tables 5.5 and 5.7 in Ref. 4]. This gives an
overall electricity generation efficiency of approximately:
((76 x 0.36) + (22 x
0.47)) x 100 / 98 which equals 38.5 % overall efficiency
The 2% renewable sources are being ignored because it is very difficult to
assess their thermal efficiencies and they are responsible for a much smaller
amount of energy production.
Graph 1 data on fuel used in generation is taken from Table 5.2, Ref.4, p162,
and shows the fuels used to generate U.K. electricity over the last 5 years, in
Tonnes of Oil Equivalent x 106.
Graph & Table 1 - Energy sources for UK electricity generation
Graph 2: Overall total UK electricity generation and associated distribution losses
Graph 2 shows over 26 TWh energy loss in transmission and distribution during
1998 due to unwanted heating effects in cables and substation equipment, out of
a total of 350 TWh generated. This represents a loss of 7.4%.
As the overall thermal efficiency of electricity generation is only 38.5%
(see above) this results in total losses of:
350 x 0.615 + 26 = 241 TWh
This represents 69% of the original energy, which has been lost as wasted
heat to the atmosphere by the time the electricity has reached the end user. Of
course, all the electricity usefully utilised also eventually ends up as heat.
This means that although almost all the electricity being used in the house
heater is converted to heat, this represents only 31% of the original energy
used to create the electricity. Although electricity is a very easy to use
source of energy, it can clearly be seen that with the concern over global
warming we should now be using it only where necessary.
Gas production, distribution and Use
Although "town gas" used to be made from coal, virtually all fuel gas used in
the U.K. now comes from the North Sea Natural Gas fields. Ref. 4 (p. 143) shows
a total of 955,342 GWh of gas input into the national transmission system in
1998, of which 20,225 GWh (2.1%) is lost due to distribution losses, metering
differences and transfers.
After visiting a number of websites for gas boiler manufacturers [Refs. 11
- 13] I discovered that ordinary modern gas boilers are typically 70 - 80%
efficient, and condensing gas boilers are 87 - 96% efficient. These extract most
of the heat from the waste flue gases, reducing this source of energy loss and
markedly increasing the performance of the boiler.Taken with the 2.1% national
gas distribution loss, this means that thermal efficiencies of using gas
directly for heating purposes can exceed 90%.
110 TWh of electricity [table 5.3 Ref. 4] was used in 1998 for domestic
purpose. About 90% of energy (99 TWh) used for domestic purposes is used for
heating [Ref. 8, p.50, & Ref. 3, p.188]. Allowing for the 7.4% distribution
loss means that 107 TWh of electricity has to be generated. As shown above,
average electricity generation efficiency is only 38.5%, and therefore 278 TWh
of primary fuel energy would have to have been used to produce 99 TWh of useful
heat, wasting about 280 TWh.
The overall efficiency of an electric heating system is on average
therefore only about 35.6%, compared with typical gas central heating
efficiencies of about 80%.
The 280 TWh of wasted energy is an enormous value, and would be able to boil
a body of water 9 times the volume of Lake Windermere:
|Surface area of Lake Windermere:
||2.56 x 107 m2
|Average depth of Lake Windermere:
|Volume of water in Lake Windermere:
||2.56 x 107 x 10 = 2.56 x 108 m3
|Volume of new body of water (Lake Windermere x 9):
||2.56 x 108 x 9 = 2.304 x 109 m3
|Density of Water:
|Mass of new body of water:
||2.304 x 109 x 1000 = 2.304 x 1012 kg
|Specific Heat Capacity of Water:
|Amount of Energy in 1 Wh:
|Amount of Energy theoretically supplied to water:
||3.6 x 1015 x 280 = 1.008 x 1018 J
|Therefore temperature rise of water:
||1.008 x 1018 / (4200 x 2.304 x 1012)
|(assuming no change of state to steam)
||= 104.2K (104.2 °C)
In comparison, if the 99 TWh of heat energy was produced by gas at 90%
efficiency, only about 110 TWh of gas would be used, and only 11 TWh would be
lost, compared with the 280 TWh lost if electricity was used. The 11 TWh would
heat the same body of water by only 4.1K (4.1 °C).
I was unable to find figures for the number of buildings heated by different
methods, however Ref.2 [Table 9.3, p.245] does give average expenditure on fuel
per consuming household, with and without both gas and electric central heating
(CH) during 1997/98. "All" is described as including only those households who
mainly consumed either gas or electricity for heating purposes. From this data I
should be able to approximately calculate the % of homes with different types of
With electric CH £9.48 / wk
Without electric CH £6.27 / wk
All households £6.58 / wk
Let the percentage of houses with electric CH = a, and without electric CH = b,
Therefore a + b = 100 and 9.48a + 6.27b = 100 x 6.58
6.27a + 6.27b = 627
3.21a = 31
a = 9.7% (to 1DP)
b = 90.3% (to 1DP)
With gas CH £7.62 / wk
Without gas CH £4.28 / wk
All households £7.16 / wk
Let the percentage of houses with gas CH = c, and without gas CH = d,
Therefore c + d = 100 and 7.62c + 4.28d = 100 x 7.16
4.28c + 4.28d = 428
3.34c = 288
c = 86.2% (to 1DP)
d = 13.8% (to 1DP)
This leaves about 4% of homes with other main forms of heating.
Doing the similar calculations for the 1980, 85, 90 and 95 data in the same Table
Table 2 - Percentage of house with different main forms of heating
The steady increase in homes using gas central heating therefore appears to
be a trend that at is favourable as far as energy wastage is concerned, although
it is probably more due to prices than energy efficiency considerations.
National Grid Transmission Losses
On reading their Seven Year Statement [Ref. 5], it was clear that much energy
is wasted by electricity generated in the north of England and Scotland being
carried down to Southern England to be used. Although some of this is still
generated in coal-fired power stations, in recent years new power stations in
the Northeast have used North Sea gas and oil. Appendix 1 shows National Grid
power lines and the location of electricity generating stations. Appendix 2
shows typical electric power flows around England. Appendix 3 shows the
opportunities for new electricity power stations, which occur mainly in the
south and south-west of England.
This supports the idea that it would be much less wasteful to take more gas
to these areas than more electricity. There is a good national gas grid pipeline
system already in place.
Upon looking at the two flow diagrams of U.K. energy [Ref.2 p.432 and Ref.4]
the first factor which became clear was that they were both giving levels and
values involving different units (Thousand million therms and millions of tonnes
of oil equivalent respectively). As I result, my first step in the analysis was
to convert the therms to equivalent tonnes of oil (for conversion table, see
|Type of energy source
||Domestic Energy Use (Tonnes of Oil
Equivalent x 106) in 1983
||Domestic Energy Use (Tonnes of Oil
Equivalent x 106) in 1998
||Percentage change from 1983 to 1998
Over the last 15 years the usage of each of the different types of energy
source has increased by a relatively large amount, with the exception of coal.
This is likely to be because of the methods of heating houses on winter evenings
having changed from remaining open coal fires to gas fires and central heating
systems. Petroleum products includes domestic transportation (personal vehicles)
and has therefore risen by a proportionally larger amount mainly due to the
increasing proportion of vehicles per person.
I was slightly disappointed about the fact that the Friend's of the Earth
website [Ref. 9] was oriented strictly around saving money and did not refer to
the efficiency differences between gas and electricity, especially in relation
to heating systems.
The OFGEM site [Ref. 10] was also similarly price-orientated, concerning
itself with the prices for the consumers, and also contained no references
regarding overall thermal efficiencies of the different energy sources. I would
have thought that an "Energy Regulator" should be concerned with the larger
It is now clear to me that heating for all purposes should ideally be done
using a primary fuel like gas (or possibly oil), and electricity used only where
it is impractical to pipe a gas supply.
One recent development (Ref.4, Chapter 6) are "Combined Heat and Power"
electricity generating stations which are built near to houses (as in
Scandinavia) or industries that need heat. The systems are designed so that much
of the heat that is usually wasted in the generation process is piped into
nearby buildings to be used for useful purposes.
1. Press and T.V. covering REVOLT (Rural England Versus Overhead
Transmission Lines) newsletter February 2000.
2. "A-Level" physics textbook - "Revised Nuffield advanced science -
Physics" (Student's Guide 1) ISBN 0 582 35415 3, Section G: "Energy Sources"
3. "A-Level" physics textbook - Advanced Physics - Volume 1 by Tom Duncan
ISBN 0 7195 5199 4, Chapter 10: "Energy and its uses"
4. Digest of United Kingdom Energy Statistics ISBN 011 5154639
(Department of Trade and Industry publication of the Government Statistical service)
5. National Grid 1996 Seven Year Statement (SYS)
6. NGC Website: http://www.ngc.co.uk
7. "The man-made world", The Open University Press, 1973
ISBN 0 335 02506 4, Case Study 1,
"The Electricity Supply Industry"
8. Energy conversion, Power and Society. The Open University Press, 1975
ISBN 0 335 02520 X, pp 3-11 and p. 50.
9. "Be a super energy saver", Friends of the Earth website: http://www.foe.org.uk
10. OFGEM (U.K. Energy Regulator)
13. Potterton plc. Website http://www.potterton.co.uk
|Thousand tonnes of oil equivalent
||Gigawatt hours (GWh)
|Thousand tonnes of oil equivalent
|Gigawatt Hours (GWh)