How the world makes and consumes electricity

Global energy consumption is shifting towards the renewable but countries like India, Brazil and China continue to use large amounts of fossil fuels.

The top 12 electricity consuming countries
 Rank  Country  Annual use  Per capita(annual)  Rank  Fossil fuel %
 1  U.S.  3,892-billion kWh  12,924 kWh  9  49
 2  China  3,438-billion kWh  2,332 kWh  91  81
 3  Japan  1,080-billion kWh  7,701 kWh  22  27.7
 4  Russia  1,003-billion kWh  6,968 kWh  29  68
 5  Germany  549-billion kWh  6,662 kWh  35  49.3
 6  Canada  530-billion kWh  16,279 kWh  4  18.1
 7  India  517-billion kWh  466 kWh  160  80
 8  France  480-billion kWh  7,328 kWh  27  17.9
 9  Brazil  402-billion kWh  2,116 kWh  96  13
 10  S. Korea  385-billion kWh  7,515 kWh  25  64
 11  U.K.  348-billion kWh  5,773 kWh  44  35.3
 12  Italy  316.3-billion kWh 5,713 kWh  47  78.6

In its remarkable series "A history of the world in 100 objects," the BBC, in conjunction with the British Museum, traces two million years of human initiative, beginning with the first flint tools and culminating in the portable solar lamp.

With its simplicity and relative low cost, the latter is said to be transforming countless small communities across sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia by doing away with the dangerous tyranny of kerosene lamps and allowing aspiring students to plug in their laptops and cellphones in the evening hours.

Objects like these simple solar lamps and chargers carry the potential, the announcers say, to break the stultifying grip of carbon fuels on human development.

Perhaps. But don't hold your breath.

In out-of-the-way communities across the Developing World — where more than 1.5 billion people still lack access to basic electricity and heating fuels — accessible solar power and small wind turbines are undoubtedly changing lives for the better.

A chart showing global energy production. (Source: EIA)

But in the industrialized — and, more importantly, the industrializing economies — fossil fuels like oil and coal are still king and show no sign of loosening their grip on the light switch any time soon.

Yes, renewable fuels like hydroelectricity and wind and solar power have been on something of a roll. Indeed, 2011 should see, for the first time, more renewable than non-renewable generating capacity installed around the world, according to the United Nations global trends report on green energy.

Much of that increase is from the government-subsidized push for wind turbines, which now account for about two per cent of global electricity consumption.

China, in fact, has doubled the electricity it gets from wind turbines in each of the past four years so that it is close to overtaking the U.S. as the world leader in installed capacity.

China has also become the world's biggest installer and producer of solar energy panels, to the point where U.S. commentators and even President Barack Obama are fretting about a new "Sputnik moment," in which, as at the start of the Cold War, America again appears to be losing that technological first step to an economic rival.

Electricity demand fuelled by China, India, Brazil

But these developments in the quickly developing world have to be taken with a dose of reality.

A solar-powered lamp is seen inside a provisional camp for earthquake victims in Port-au-Prince following the deadly earthquake in 2010. Energy consumption per capita is substantially higher in North America and Europe. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

The worldwide demand simply for electricity, fuelled largely by the developing manufacturing giants China, India and, to a lesser extent, Brazil, is growing so fast that today's gains on the renewable energy front may not make much of a dent.

Electricity growth in China and India alone is projected to be close to 45 per cent over the next 25 years. In the next 15, China is on track to build as many power plants as America has constructed over the past 60 years.

What's more, fossil fuels will continue to provide the lion's share of that electricity generation, and their contribution won't stop growing until at least 2020, according to Canada's National Energy Board.

By 2035, China is still expected to be getting roughly 75 per cent of its electricity from coal, the dirtiest of the three main fossil fuels.

Worldwide, coal's share of electricity generation in 2035 is projected to increase slightly from 42 to 43 per cent, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.


Of course, how the world makes its electricity varies  from place to place.

Not every country is as blessed as Canada, with its abundance of relatively clean and renewable hydroelectricity. We get nearly 58 per cent of our electrical power from hydro, 14 per cent from nuclear and the rest from fossil fuels.

China and the U.S., on the other hand, the world's two biggest energy users, have much different profiles.

According to the World Bank's most recent, directly comparable statistics (for 2007), China gets the vast bulk of its electrical power from coal (81 per cent) while renewable sources, including the massive Three Gorges hydro dam, one of the world's engineering wonders, make up less than 15 per cent.

The U.S. figures are six per cent renewable, 20 per cent nuclear and 74 per cent fossil fuel.

For the planet as a whole, they are 18 per cent renewable, 14 per cent nuclear and 66 per cent fossil fuels. The latter is a pretty serious addiction, as no less authority than ExxonMobil points out [see sidebar].

On average, a North American or European city of a million people consumes:

  • Six million British thermal units (BTUs) of energy every second;
  • Over 3,785 litres of oil per minute;
  • 150 tonnes of coal each hour.

Source: ExxonMobil: The Outlook for Energy 2010

Of course, consumption patterns also vary — even more dramatically.

The daily energy "footprint" of North Americans — a concept that measures the electricity and fuels people use to run their homes, power their vehicles and consume public and private services — is double that of Europeans and nearly seven times that of those who live in South Asia.

At some point in 2010, China surpassed the U.S. as the planet's largest energy and electricity consumer, according to several authorities.

But keep in mind that China has nearly four times the population the U.S. does. If it is catch-up time we are talking about, it is going to take more than solar lamps to satisfy China's energy needs.