Chartbook - Carbon Notes #1: Repowering the world - the challenge of electrification
As far as we are currently able to judge, our best chance to halt the further escalation of the climate crisis through decarbonization of the economy depends on electricity and electrification. Given the current horizon of technological expectations, electric power and electric technology offer us the best chance of reconciling the insatiable desire for energy with the stretched and frayed environmental envelope.
Electricity today is still a major driver of environmental disaster. This is because it is overwhelmingly generated by burning fossil fuels and coal in particular. It is in fact, the largest single source of pollution, more than fossil-fueled powered transport or agriculture. Not only do they contribute to climate change, emissions from coal-fired power stations around the world are so toxic that they kill millions of people annually. But electricity is one form of energy that we do know how to generate without CO2 emissions, most obviously by solar, wind, hydro or nuclear generation. So, the path to a low-carbon future depends on greening the electricity generation system and at the same time expanding the total volume of electric power generated so that we can apply clean electric power to more purposes than we currently do.
This will involve accelerating and redirecting the process of electrification that has proceeded unevenly across the globe for one hundred and forty years. The adoption of electricity has been far from universal. As this useful graphic for the US makes clear, even in one of the world’s richest and energy-intensive societies the use of electricity varies today dramatically across sectors of social and economic life.
Source: Mai et al NREL
If America is to decarbonize, it will have to dramatically increase the application of electricity not only to transport, but also to other industrial, domestic and commercial applications, where we currently burn fossil fuels directly to generate heat. The United States, with its minimal public transport and no electrified rail system is an extreme case. But the same applies in varying degrees to every developed economy.
Green electrification will modify and redirect the existing trajectory of electrification. To gain a sense of the challenge ahead, we need to start by mapping the history of electrification to date. This is, in itself, a considerable task.
A remarkable paper by Pinto et al set to appear in Energy in April 2023 offers the first truly comprehensive, quantified overview of global electricity generation and use over the 120 years since 1900. There is much to be said about this fascinating paper, whose main focus is on questions of efficiency. But in the first instance it provides us with an unprecedented overview over global electrification.
Viewed at a global level what you see is an ascending curve of electricity generation, which is closely linked to global GDP.
Initially, electricity found its first applications in transport and in industrial applications. As overall consumption has risen exponentially, its applications have diversified and are now split roughly evenly between industrial applications on the one side and domestic and commercial uses on the other. At the same time the use of electricity in transport diminished to insignificance.
Pinto et al’s remarkable mapping also allows to trace the functional end-uses to which electricity has been applied.
Originally, electricity was applied above all to lighting and electric motors both for transport purposes and in industry. Today, communications and microelectronics, household and commercial appliances and low temperature heating and cooling all account for substantial slices of vastly-expanded electricity demand.
In the future, if we are to achieve decarbonization, we will see a further dramatic shifts in the end-uses to which electricity is applied. Transport will return to the kind of importance it had in the early history of electrification, though on a vastly greater scale in absolute terms. High-temperature heating for industrial processes and electrochemical applications of electricity will dramatically expand. Those are the so-called “hard to abate” sectors. So too will the use of electricity in low-temperature heating and cooling, though the extent of the increase in demand will depend on the extent to which we can roll out the use of highly efficient heat pumps.
Some of these technologies are already relatively well-understood. Others are still on the drawing board. Some of these changes will intrude directly into every day life, such as changes to modes of space heating and air-conditioning, the adoption of EV and a shift from road and air to rail. Others will take place behind the scenes. But altogether it is clear that they will require a further dramatic expansion in electricity supply. Over the last thirty years, global electricity consumption more than doubled. It would not be surprising if generation doubled again in the coming thirty years. Some models suggests a threefold increase will be necessary.
This raises the question of how the electricity is going to be generated. Clearly, we need a huge expansion in low-carbon power. Conventionally we tend to talk about this in terms of “energy transitions”. We imagine a sequence in which organic sources of energy were replaced by coal, which in turn gave way to hydrocarbons like oil and natural gas. Sophisticated narratives of “carbon politics” have been erected on the basis of such phase models.
There are sectors in particular countries whose history is well captured by simple models of energy transition. Transport in the United States is a case in point.
Source: Suits, Matteson, Moyer 2020
First American transport was propelled by organic sources - human and animal muscle, firewood, wind and water energy. Then there was the fifty year epoch in which coal and the steam engine held sway. Horses and steam (and electric alternatives) were rapidly displaced between 1910 and the 1930s by petrol, diesel and kerosene, which enabled much higher speeds up to and including powered flight. What transport now faces, is a fourth transition from oil to electricity, hydrogen or synthetic e-fuels.
But transport in the USA is unusual in exhibiting this neat succession of energy types. In industry, commercial, domestic applications and food production, there have not been simple transitions. They rely on multiple energy sources at any given time. And we add further to the complexity when we factor in electricity. In electricity generation, which is then transmitted to virtually every sector other than transport, we see not a transition from one energy source to another, but agglomeration and combination.
As the Pinto et al data show, as global electricity production has grown by a factor of twenty or more since 1950, the sources of energy mobilized to generate electric power have not “transitioned” but multiplied.
Rather than fading away, as suggested by an energy transition model, until the 2010s burning coal still accounted for 40 percent of vastly increased global electricity generation. On top of this were added natural gas and oil, which means that the fossil fuel share of electric power generation has hovered between 60 and 70 percent for half a century and remains higher today than it was in the 1940s when hydropower accounted for 40 percent or more of electricity generated worldwide. In the 2010s hyrdo was still the most significant low-carbon source of electricity, alongside nuclear power, whose share peaked at over 20 percent in the early 1990s.
The “new” renewables, solar and wind, show great promise. In the right conditions they can generate power at costs lower than ever before seen. But they have so far made only a modest impact on global power production. In proportional terms, they have effected a shift less than half as significant as the nuclear power programs of the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Of course, global power production today is more than three times what it was at the height of nuclear enthusiasm in the 1970s. But that is also a measure of the challenge ahead.
Given the need to electrify huge areas of economic and social life and given unmet development needs around the world, it is reasonable to assume that electricity production worldwide must at least double in the next 25 to 30 years. To achieve climate stabilization almost all of that new capacity must be low-carbon and the majority of existing generation capacity must be retired and replaced as well. We have very limited historical experience in the electricity sector of a complete transition of this kind even on a much smaller scale. The examples that come to mind are rich European countries that have shut down most or all of their coal-fired power stations. That is a tiny foreshadowing of the changes ahead.
The wholesale displacement of fossil fuels across global electricity generation, with overall capacity expanded to twice its current size, in the space of a single generation, will be a truly staggering undertaking. To attempt to fit this drama into some familiar experience of “energy transition” is to dramatically underestimate the challenge ahead. In economic terms, as measured by trillions of dollars of investment, it is well within the capacity of modern economies. As much as it will devalue existing assets, it will be a huge value-generator. As a technical, industrial, political and societal challenge, it is gigantic and unprecedented.
If it is achieved through the application of net zero targets and deliberate policy, it will be one of the most spectacular collective acts of government intervention on record. If on the other hand it ultimately ends up being driven by the rapid development of electrical technology and the spectacular fall in the cost of renewables, it will be one of the most comprehensive processes of “market-driven” (admittedly, a highly problematic shorthand) economic restructuring ever seen, even larger than motorization in the age of “Fordism”, or the shock delivered to the global food system by the new world “grain invasion” of the late 19th century. Its impact will be felt everywhere across a planet whose population by 2050 is expected to be approaching 10 billion people and whose per capita energy use will be larger than ever before in history. It will unfold in an uneven and combined fashion: combined because tied together through financial and technological linkages; uneven because it is so interwoven with local structures of power and social relations.
Beyond the generality of uneven and combined development can we say anything more specific about the trajectory of electrification and its future at a regional or national level? As a first approximation it may be useful to distinguish four “worlds”. These can be classified in terms of level of energy consumption and the pace of growth. This classification applies to emissions generally, but it is particularly stark in relation to electricity.
The advanced economies got to their position by mobilizing energy and electrifying early. In the 2020s they have high levels of per capita energy and electricity consumption. Electricity accounts for 20-30 of final energy consumption, as high as 40 percent in exceptional cases. But they are also characterized by a declining overall energy intensity of GDP, stagnant electrical infrastructure development and a plateauing or even decline of overall energy use. Fossil fuels remain part of their electrical generating mix, but coal has been under severe pressure from natural gas since the 1990s and they have already embarked on a shift to modern renewables.
Western environmental discourse circles around the dilemmas of these high-energy-consumption low-growth societies and how to accelerate electrification and the shift to renewables. This reflects both national preoccupations and the legacy of the early history of climate politics in the 1980s and 1990s when the G7 countries, led by the United States, Europe and Japan were overwhelmingly responsible, along with the former Soviet bloc for the majority of current emissions. That is no longer our reality. As a result of its spectacularly rapid and carbon-intensive growth, China today emits more CO2 than the entire G7 combined.
China’s per capita emissions today are in the same ballpark as those of high-emitting European countries and well above the likes of the UK, Italy or France. They are so high to a large degree because of China’s coal-base electrical power system whose capacity today exceeds that of the entire US electrical system. And unlike the G7 the Chinese economy has been growing rapidly for four decades. It may slow down in the immediate future, but its medium-term outlook is still for growth that is considerably more rapid than that of the G7. China’s green electrification challenge is therefore not just gigantic. It is also involves a more radical change in direction than that required of the G7. China must perform not so much a transition as a power slide around a hairpin bend (h/t Jörg Haas). To achieve the carbon neutrality goal announced by Beijing it must pivot the largest, most polluting and most rapidly expanding power system in the world from a coal base to low-carbon sources. The data of 2022 signal the contradictions this involves, with China making both huge strides in renewable investment and permitting a large number of coal-fired power stations.
China’s dilemmas are extreme and dominates the global climate equation. Its choices determine whether or not there is a prospect for overall stabilization. But there are some other, smaller, societies in an at least somewhat analogous situation. These would include the fast-growing late-developing East Asian industrial champions such as South Korea and Taiwan. And also, at a stretch, the rich Middle Eastern hydrocarbon exporters, which have seen spectacular growth in the last half century and unsurprisingly have huge per capita emissions.
The dilemmas of green electrification starting from a level of high energy consumption (whether with high or low growth) confront societies collectively responsible for more than 80 percent of global emissions, which are home to perhaps 35 percent of the world’s population. The majority of the world’s population live in societies that have other problems.
India is the leader of those developing countries that have in recent decades, thanks to ongoing electrification programs and economic growth, been experiencing a surge in per capita energy consumption from a very low per-capita base. India is also heavily reliant on coal-fired power stations. Coal is cheap and locally available. Viewed through a G7 lens this seems to call for urgent decarbonization, under the slogan of energy transition. But this runs up against the stark facts of India’s low per-capita consumption, which is one third that of the less-polluting European countries and less than one seventh that of the United States. What India’s population need first and foremost is not cleaner electricity but more of it. Of course, the atmosphere doesn’t care about fairness or per capita measures. India is now the world’s third largest emitter. Decarbonization is crucial. But to make this palatable to politics on earth, a decarbonized energy future has to be couched not as a sacrifice of coal on environmental grounds, but as a promising opportunity for electrification and development through ultra-cheap new technologies in which India has comparative advantage. There are few places in the world after all, which offer a more propitious combination of wind and sun.
On grounds of physical geography and climate much the same might be said of much of sub-Saharan Africa. And there are plans afoot to invest, for instance, in hydrogen production in Namibia. But the crucial concern in much of sub-Saharan Africa is simply development as such. Over the last decade India can boast of having brought at least intermittent electric power to practically every rural community in the country. Meanwhile, by one estimate the 22 million citizens of Mali each use less electric power in a year than the average European uses to boil just one tea kettle. Nigerians demonstrate their remarkable capacity for improvisation by squeezing more dollar of gdp out of every kwh of networked electricity than anyone else in the world. They rely for most of their electric power on highly inefficient and polluting diesel generators.
Starting from the fourth quadrant - a position of both extremely low per-capita energy consumption and slow or stalled growth - the priority in much of Africa is simply electrification by any means possible. Renewable power will in many cases be the cheapest and most suitable option. It may, in fact, offer export opportunities. But in the case of low-income developing countries to make a fetish of carbon neutrality is groteseque. As Hannah Richie has shown, much of Africa’s population could make a life-changing advance into lower middle income levels of prosperity, where India’s was a decade or go, or China in the 1990s and barely make a dent on the global carbon budget.
Not every country in the world fits easily into this grid, or is subject to the same basic constraints. Brazil, for instance, is so favored with hydro power that it escapes many of the conventional trade offs. South Africa on the other hand is an extreme case of a lower middle-income country, which thanks to coal-based generation has the per capita emissions of an advanced economy and a network that is currently degenerating into a shambles of corruption, criminality and dysfunction. It could be said that South Africa is the rare case of a country that must decarbonize if it is to break out of its developmental impasse.
Of course, there is also a crass generalization involved in applying such simple categories to giant nations like India or China, where multiple energy regimes exist side by side, region to region. And the same is true for European exceptions like France with its highly developed nuclear capacity. And even within the patchwork energy system of the United States, one might wish to differentiate between coal-belching states and California, or several red-states, including Texas, which are unlikely pioneers of wind and solar power. Texas is on course to match Germany in the share of renewables in its electricity energy mix.
It might also be objected that treating the question of green electrification in such general terms fails to address class dynamics and the energy system’s entanglement with global capitalism. This is an important point, which I began to address in Chartbook #24. I want to take some time to think through the implications of applying such an analytic to the electricity system in particular. As a networked industry, electricity was quintessentially an arena of nation-building. In Asia it is often considered part of the welfare state. Since the 1980s it has also been a key arena for privatization and the formation of new public-private partnership. This adds a particular complexity to the class logic of green electrification which I want to explore in future posts.
In the meantime, the two by two grid of “green energy scenarios” may be a useful starting point for mapping some of the complexity of the global scene. One of the things that particularly recommends it, is that can be related to other similar mappings of global climate politics suggested for instance by Navroz Dubash et al. It will serve as a useful frame for several further newsletters in this new series of Carbon Notes.
With many thanks to Henry Williams for research assistance.
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