Assessments of the feasibility of decoupling energy consumption from economic growth could benefit from an improved understanding of the size, nature and value of different energy flows. This understanding may be enhanced by focusing upon so-called “useful exergy”—a measure of both the quantity and “quality” of energy (defined here as its thermodynamic ability to perform physical work) at the “useful” stage of the energy conversion chain. Useful exergy flows within national economies are increasingly being quantified and their role in economic activity explored. However, this so-called “exergy economics” field currently lacks a consistent methodology. This paper contributes to the development of a more consistent approach. By constructing a “useful exergy account” for the United Kingdom covering the period 1960–2012, we explore how different methodological choices influence estimates of useful exergy for different categories of end-use as well as estimates of total national useful exergy consumption. Specifically, we evaluate the sensitivity of estimates to: (a) the method of estimating the exergy efficiency of different end-uses; (b) the boundaries between end-use categories; and (c) the method of estimating the primary exergy associated with renewable electricity. We also improve upon the current method of accounting for industrial uses of heat. This leads to suggestions for best practice when constructing useful exergy accounts, and the identification of areas where further methodological development is required.
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