Published on August 31st, 2013 | by Guest Contributor


US Uses 11 Times More Energy Than UK (with Only 5 Times More People)

August 31st, 2013 by  

Originally published on Outlier, Opower’s blog.
by Barry Fischer

Last week, we called attention to America’s massive energy inefficiency problem. The amount of energy wasted by the US economy in 2012, we noted, could power the United Kingdom for 7 years.

But of course the United Kingdom is more than just a reference point. It’s an interesting energy case study itself. The UK is the European Union’s largest oil producer, the country’s renewable electricity use has quadrupled since 2000, and last year the UK was crowned the world’s most energy-efficient major economy. Not to mention its capital city is home to Opower’s European headquarters.

us energy efficiency uk energy efficiency

Given our company’s inclination to make insightful energy usage comparisons, we’d love to be able to present a side-by-side comparison of total energy waste in the US and UK. Unfortunately, each country takes a distinct methodological approach to evaluating economy-wide energy efficiency  – making it unfeasible to do a clean apples-to-apples comparison (see Author’s Note).

Source: UK Energy Flowchart, Department of Energy and Climate Change (July 2013)

Source: UK Energy Flowchart, Department of Energy and Climate Change (July 2013)

But, based on our knowledge of the energy economy in the US and UK, and equipped with their recently published Energy Flowcharts for 2012, we can still draw some meaningful conclusions:

  • In 2012, the US’s primary energy demand was 11 times bigger than the UK’s
  • The efficiency of electric power generation and transmission is roughly 35% in both countries
  • The average American household uses 2.7 times more electricity and 1.3 times more natural gas than a British household
  • Transportation, dominated by petroleum in both countries, is also their largest energy end-use
  • The countries’ electricity generation portfolios in 2012 were uncannily similar (Coal ~40%, Gas ~30%, Nuclear ~20%, Renewables ~10%).

The first point above, regarding the sizable divergence in per-capita energy use between the US (313.9 million people) and the UK (63.2 million people), may be the juiciest tidbit of all. Why does the average American consume twice as much energy as the average Brit? The answer is multifaceted and complex, but we can begin to identify a few key drivers.

First, consider transportation — the largest energy end-use in both countries. The average fuel economy of UK cars is currently 65% better than US cars. Americans also drive almost twice as many miles per year than Brits. More gasoline per mile, combined with lots of miles, is the perfect recipe for a bloated energy flowchart.

Second, compare a typical home near London, England with one in New London, Connecticut. You’ll see some clear energy-related differences: the UK home will neither have an air-conditioner nor a swimming pool (both are exceedingly rare there, largely due to a milder climate); they’re also far more likely to be hang-drying their laundry. These kinds of factors add up.

Third, UK energy efficiency policies have become increasingly ambitious. Last November, the UK Government unveiled a national Energy Efficiency Strategy, that included a £39 million investment in research on how to empower consumers and businesses to adopt more energy-efficient behavior over time. And starting soon, the UK will join other European countries in a regional effort to reduce energy use by 20% by 2020.

While the US has also made strides in boosting energy efficiency in recent years, especially at the state level and through innovative utility programs, the UK’s concerted nationwide initiatives to cut energy use have positioned the country as a leader…as evidenced by its #1 ranking in ACEEE’s 2012 International Energy Efficiency Scorecard. And these efforts are borne out by the 2012 data: as shown below, the UK’s weather-adjusted primary energy consumption inched downward for its 7th straight year.


The UK’s primary energy consumption (weather-adjusted) has declined for seven straight years (Source: UK Digest of Energy Statistics, 2013)

For its part, the US has also seen a general downward trend in total and per-capita energy use in recent years, but it hasn’t trickled down quite as consistently as in the UK.

There are many interesting insights to be drawn from recent energy trends in the States and the Kingdom — including how the Super Bowl and the birth of little Prince George exerted a surprisingly similar effect on national energy use. To dive deeper into the data from both sides of the pond, check out the 2013 Digest of UK Energy Statistics and the most recent US Energy Flowchart Analysis from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Author’s note: The UK’s Energy Flow analysis is constructed on a “primary fuel input basis,” which differs slightly from the “useful energy basis” adopted by the US version. Interested readers can read more details about the UK’s flowchart calculations here and US calculations here

Special thanks to Nate Kaufman and Ashley Sudney.

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  • Saaby1980

    I think the UK has a culture of making do during hot summers with just a window open or a fan. Also Brits dry clothes using the line outside and in general have smaller homes to heat. I think it may be more interesting to see power consumption against square metre of inside space if that would at all be possible.

  • My experience is energy in buiildings –

    Yes the US is behind the UK which is still is woefully inadequate and behind say Germany and Scandinavia.

    Switzerland does badly – because they over-specify plant which occurs in the US by default (boilers / Furnaces are gas Guzzlers too).

    US uses air-con when good overnight free-chilling would be more than adequate (even Texas still spend more on heating than cooling).

    In the US to see optimum start and stop and overnight setback is rare.

    Enthalpy and heat recovery wheels , ground source heat pumps, hydro-electric based load balancing and heat /ice storage are also areas where the US is behind.

    Then there is turning lights off – just watch a few US programs – lights are always on as people enter a house (unless its a basement and they hold torches because its scarey !).

    In Europe food waste is considered a disgrace. Until recently you could be prosecuted for food waste in Germany (a war or two on your own soil will do that).

    So – the biggest fiy required is cultural (and educational) – the rest will follow !

  • globi

    At Home Depot in the US they actually sell plastic films to seal/cover-up the windows (because they are often not air tight). There is no such thing in central Europe, because windows don’t leak in the first place.

    • globi

      And despite the fact that natural gas is much cheaper in the US, people in the Northeast of the US usually have much higher heating bills, than for instance, people living in Switzerland. Many American building owners don’t seem to care much about insulation compared to Swiss-building owners. (At least based on my experience).

  • Shiggity

    You should also mention total land area. The UK has 94000 square miles, the US has 3.7 million square miles. Electricity and gas heating are also cheaper in the US by a decent margin.

    You also use the term household. Do you mean just houses or are you also using apartments? How many more houses does the US have than the UK? 50x? 100x? What is the % of brits living in apartments vs the % of Americans living in apartments | same thing with houses.

    The UK would be more comparable to one of our core megaregions. The closest probably being the Northeast corridor.

  • Steeple

    There are hardly any similarities between the UK and US economies.

  • JamesWimberley

    Hardly anybody commutes into London by car. They go by train: 977,000 a day.

    • Hmm, I agree with that [formerly being one of those London commuters]. However, I’ve lived here in New York for the past 10 years and the number of commuters into the city here can reach 5,000,000 per working day. Huge numbers arrive from New Jersey and Connecticut along with the other four boroughs of the city.

      That said, Bloomberg did attempt to bring congestion charging to Manhattan. But there are still large enough numbers of people who simply must drive their ridiculous SUVs, who managed to defeat his proposal.

      • I believe your numbers must be wrong – the diurnal population change of london exceeds 7M – so at least that many commute every day

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