The way we have developed the UK energy system is based on a centralised view. Power is generated far from its users. Production is managed up or down to follow changes in demand. The producer has no relationship with the user, and the user has little control over their energy.

But the system is changing. The change is driven by users wanting to take greater control of their energy, principally to manage their costs. These local actions – be they investing in decentralised generation, efficiency measures or actively shifting energy demand – are individual decisions, hidden from view. 

But a new report published by the renamed Association for Decentralised Energy seeks to quantify the cumulative value of all of these discrete, individual actions.

The results are staggering. The collective impact of all those individual decisions and investments is worth £37bn in avoided business energy costs every single year since 1980. Our annual gas imports would have been three times what they are today. That is 771 supertankers of avoided gas imports. The UK would also have needed to build 14 additional large power stations and our annual CO2 emissions would be higher by nearly half a billion tonnes.

These demand side investments have made the UK leaner, greener and more secure. It is only by seeing the enormous total value that we can fully understand the case for doing more at the local level.

This is not about pitting one system against another. There are no silver bullets. It is about creating a system that can accommodate and value all options. Centralised and decentralised, supply and demand.

To achieve this end, we require a new way of thinking about the UK energy system. Not thinking of a system which dictates to the user, but thinking of one in which the user and producer are in partnership. By exploring all options equally we can find the best way to meet the UK’s energy needs by managing both production and demand, and crucially, by cutting waste first.

Using Government’s own estimates, our report shows that there are many more ‘demand side’ opportunities. By 2020, we could cut business energy cost by a further £5bn and save enough power to run the London Underground for 30 years.

A competitive, secure and low carbon energy economy is achievable, but only if we explore the options at all scales to help us get there.

Tim Rotheray, director of the Association for Decentralised Energy