Current Events: Clean Electricity in the World Today

Clean electricity is the cornerstone of a future with 100% clean power for all. All of the combustion in highly polluting, fossil fueled sectors like transportation and industry needs to swapped out for electric alternatives. But much of the electricity system itself needs to be transformed as well. There’s quite a bit of power generation around the world from fossil fuel or biomass combustion, and all of it needs to be shut down. In this section we’ll examine the numbers behind how much electricity is from clean sources, where progress is being made, and inequalities in electricity generation.

The direction we’re moving towards is to fulfill the tera strategy: generating terawatts of clean electricity to power the world, while following the climate justice tenets of minimizing extraction, while maximizing locally generated, community controlled power, and ending energy poverty. Understanding the amount of electricity that is generated right now, and the fraction that is clean can give us a measuring stick for how much effort is needed in the tera strategy.

In order to halt carbon emissions from electricity generation, all electricity must be generated from carbon-free power sources: solar, wind, geothermal, wave/tidal, nuclear and hydroelectric. The latter two are more problematic that the others in terms of climate justice concerns, so we separate them in the graphs and accompanying discussion. Some climate justice advocates want no new nuclear and hydroelectric power, but think that the existing plants should remain producing power until their scheduled end of life. Others advocate for existing nuclear plants to be taken offline, which would prevent generation of nuclear waste and reduce the need for uranium mining. Although much of the damage from hydroelectricity comes from the construction of the plant, the removal of hydroelectric dams can improve local ecosystems. The Elwha River in the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state had its hydroelectric dams removed to improve the habitats.

Biofuels require combustion, so generate a large amount of harmful air pollution. They also use land that could be for food production. Since climate justice organizations typically reject biofuels as a false solution, we include it in a category with fossil fuels below.

Global electricity generation has increased substantially since the 1990s, by more than a factor of two. Electricity generation recently surpassed 3 TW, but this is not the total useful electricity. The electric power final consumption is only about 2.5 TW, with the rest lost in transmission, distribution, storage, or usage within power plants. Power losses tend to be much less for renewables.

Average worldwide electricity generation in TW (= 1 TW-yr/yr = 8760 TWh/yr). Source: IEA

Despite widespread attention to the problem of global warming since 1990, fossil fuels and other combustion-based sources of electricity have increased by 130% since then. Hydroelectric power generation has nearly doubled, from a quarter to a half of a terawatt. Nuclear power is the only electricity source that has not been growing rapidly. Generation today is similar to the year 2000 value.

Over the last few years, renewable power generation has increased substantially. Between 1995 and 2018, wind has increased by a factor of over 150, and solar by a factor of over 500. Together with other renewables like geothermal, renewable sources have become a sizable fraction of world electricity generation. In 2018, they made up over 7% of total electricity generation. Preliminary estimates show that in 2020, solar generated 0.096 TW of electricity, amounting to a 47% increase in just the last two years. And wind generated 0.18 TW in 2020, a 25% increase in 2 years. Other clean renewables like geothermal and tidal power generated 0.013 TW in 2020. These totals amount to nearly 10% of electricity generation, a percentage that is certain to soar even more over the coming years.

Clean electricity generation in TW (= 1 TW-yr/yr = 8760 TWh/yr). Source: IEA and Ember

Ironically the fraction of electricity generated by fossil fuels actually increased between 1995 and 2018. Both nuclear and hydroelectricity have increased in total generation, but have not doubled like total electricity generation.

Global electricity generation by source in 1995 and 2018. Source: IEA.

Electricity usage

What are all those electrons used for? The largest source by far is industry, which consumes over a terawatt. Industry includes mining, construction, and manufacturing (including metals/minerals, chemicals, food, wood, and textiles).

Very little of the vehicle fleet on the planet is electrified, so less than 0.05 TW is used for transportation. Residential usage of electricity is 0.69 TW, and commercial and public services use a little over half a terawatt. The fractional power usage of each sector has stayed similar over the last three decades.

Global electricity final consumption by sector in TW (= 1 TW-yr/yr = 8760 TWh/yr). Source: IEA

World total 7.6 B
Region Population
Africa 1.3 B
Asia Pacific 4.1 B
Central/South America 0.5 B
Middle East 0.2 B
Eurasia 0.2 B
Europe 0.7 B
North America 0.5 B

Population totals in the 7 regions separated below.

The world average per capita electricity generation (including losses) is a little over 400 W. There is a huge amount of inequality in generation from region to region. In the graphic below, the per capita usage is separated into 7 world regions. Such coarse regions are clearly an inadequate description of the world, but at least provide a glimpse into the diversity of usage and sources of electricity. It’s especially important to point out that there’s no attempt here to calculate consumption-based emissions, e.g., from goods produced in Asia Pacific but shipped to North America or Europe for use.

The width of each bar is proportional to the population of that region. This means that the area of each box represents the total electricity generation. The vertical dotted lines in the background represent two billion people. Thus each rectangle in the background corresponds to 500 W/person * 2 billion people = 1 TW.

Per capita electricity generation by source in 7 world regions. Width of each bar is proportional to population of each region. Vertical dashed lines separate 2 billion people, meaning that each rectangle in the background corresponds to 1 TW. 

In North America, per capita electricity generation is more than 3 times the world average. If electricity generation were equal to 1270 W per capita in all regions, it would require nearly 10 TW. Large fractions of the world population, on the other hand, live in regions with less than one-fourth of this amount of electricity generation on a per-person basis.

The fraction of combustion-generated versus carbon-free power in each region gives insight into the difficulty of the electricity transition in each region. Europe and Central/South America each already get more than half of their electricity from non-combustion sources. The Middle East generates nearly all of its electricity from fossil fuels. Eurasia, North America, Africa, and Asia Pacific generated between 60 and 80% of their electricity from combustion.

Nuclear power is mostly confined to Europe, North America and Eurasia, where it generates between 15 and 23% of electricity. Hydroelectricity power provides more than half of the electricity to the rainy regions of Central and South America. Hydro makes up 14-18% of generation in all other regions except the Middle East.

Countries that prioritize well-being of their citizens are already close to 100% clean electricity. Costa Rica, for instance, generated 98.55% of its electricity from renewable sources in 2020. Kenya has more than doubled its electricity generation since 2000, has expanded access to electricity to its population from 15% to 75%, and now generates over 90% from renewables. Bhutan generates nearly all of its electricity from hydroelectricity, with a trace of wind. New Zealand is over 80% clean electricity.

Wind, solar, geothermal, and tidal are the truly clean, renewable sources. The world average of these is only 29 W/person, which is not nearly enough for a decent living. We have to expand clean electricity generation substantially, especially in the Global South, in order to end energy poverty.

North America and Europe are each generating around 100 W/person of clean renewables: solar, wind, geothermal and tidal. Asia Pacific generates more solar power than the rest of the world combined, but only 8.5 W/person. Wind power is the primary clean renewable worldwide.

The statistics above show a rapid increase in wind and solar electricity production, which are becoming a decent fraction of global generation. There remains, though, the colossal challenge of shuttering nearly two-thirds of the electricity generation on Earth that depends on fossil fuel, biomass or waste combustion. In addition, we must generate electricity to replace the multitude of combustion-based energy usage, for vehicles, heating, and industry, which we discuss next.

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Justiça Ambiental! is an environmental justice organization which operates out of Mozambique.

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