Feature Report: Understanding Electricity

3 items of content in this feature report

Going in depth

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The Global Electricity Mix

The electricity mix, or the breakdown of different fuels used to generate electricity, is still dominated by coal at the global level. However, this situation is expected to change significantly over the next twenty years with the sharp rise in the use of renewable energies and natural gas. 

From coal and gas to hydro, wind, solar and nuclear power, all energy sources are used to generate electricity, albeit at differing proportions depending on the country. ©THINKSTOCK

Inexpensive and easy to produce, coalCoal is ranked by its degree of transformation or maturity, increasing in carbon content from... is currently still the main source of fuelFuel is any solid, liquid or gaseous substance or material that can be combined with an oxidant... for powerIn physics, power is the amount of energy supplied by a system per unit time. In simpler terms, power can be viewed as energy output... generation worldwide. In 2013, it accounted for 41% of the electricityForm of energy resulting from the movement of charged particles (electrons) through a conductor... mix, versus 22% for natural gas, while renewables (excluding hydropower) came in at less than 6%, hydro at 16% and nuclear at 11%1.

According to forecasts by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), however, this balance will have changed by 2040, with the world energy mixThe range of energy sources of a region. comprising 9% of green energies excluding hydro (and more than 16% including hydro), thanks mainly to the rapid development of wind power. Coal, on the other hand, is expected to decline from 36% to 32% despite the continued strong growth in the number of coal-fired power plants in India and China. Natural gas is slated to increase to around 35% of the electricity mix2. And the use of nuclear power should remain stable or rise slightly, increasing in India and China but at the same time declining in certain European countries and in the United States (U.S.).

Several factors could affect these estimates. First, more aggressive co2See Carbon Dioxid emissions reduction policies, including a carbon tax, could slow the spread of coal-based power generation, which is still the most carbon-intensive technology. Second, if shale gasShale gas is found in deeply buried clayey sedimentary rock that is both the source rock and the reservoir for the gas... production develops around the world as quickly as it has in the United States in the past few years, the price of gas will decline even faster than forecast, automatically increasing the fuel's share in the energy mix. However, the technology used to produce shale gas has drawn a great deal of opposition around the world due to its alleged environmental impactAny change to the environment, whether adverse or beneficial, wholly or partially resulting from human activity....

41%: The share of coal in world electricity generation in 2013.

Global Disparities in the Electricity Mix

The electricity mix varies considerably from country to country depending on national policies and local fuel production.

In the United States, the widespread production of shale gas over the past six years has caused the fuel to become significantly cheaper and lifted its share in the U.S. energy mix to 25%. Another consequence has been an increase in U.S. coal exports, which has driven down prices on the global market while leading to greater use of coal in other countries, notably in Europe. This in turn has resulted in higher CO2 emissions.

China and India continue to make heavy use of coal because it is the cheapest and most easily accessible fuel. But China is also pursuing large-scale development of nuclear power plants and onshoreRefers to land-based oil exploration and production operations, as in "onshore seismic data acquisition" or "onshore drilling". wind farms, particularly in Inner Mongolia. India, meanwhile, is expanding its number of solar farms and also has plans to build nuclear power plants.

Following the Fukushima disaster in March 2011, Japan reduced the use of nuclear power by closing its plants for 14 months, making up the shortfall with coal-, gas- and oil-fired plants. It has since restarted several reactors.

The Fukushima accident also changed attitudes in Europe, where nuclear power had previously met with the greatest success at between 22% and 27% of the electricity mix3. Germany, for example, decided to phase out nuclear power by 2022 and had already reduced the share of this fuel to 15.4% of its energy mix in 2013 versus 22% in 2010, while increasing the share of renewable energies from 16.6% to 23.9% over the same period. This choice has, however, forced the country to rely more heavily on coal, both to make up for the closure of its nuclear plants and to offset the inherent intermittency of wind and solar power. Switzerland has also decided to switch off its nuclear power plants by 2034. The United Kingdom, on the other hand, has chosen to renew its installed base.

In France, the energy mix in 2014 consisted of 77% nuclear power, 5% fossil fuels and 16.8% renewables, including wind, hydro and solar power. The country would like to bring the share of nuclear power down to 50% while increasing that of renewables.

The European Union has set the target of raising the share of renewable energies to 20% by 2020, and most large countries in other regions are also trying to increase their use of wind and solar power. However, to make up for their intermittent nature, these energies require innovative solutions such as local systems to store the electricity generated during operating hours, decentralized networks that use locally generated electricity, and new power grids that can manage the variable input from wind and solar farms.

Renewable energies (including hydropower) generated 30% of Europe's electricity in 2013.

World Electricity Generation Trends, by Fuel

See graphic below