Feature Reports

Understanding Electricity

Extra-high voltage (EHV) transmission lines running from the Penly nuclear power plant on the French side of the English Channel. ©EDF / ERANIAN PHILIPPE

Electricity is a ubiquitous part of our daily lives. Created by the movement of electrons, this secondary energy source must be generated from a primary source such as coal, natural gas, uranium, the sun, wind or water.
Electricity is one of the main causes of CO2 emissions, accounting for 42.5% of the world total. The carbon impact of some generation techniques, however, is up to 20 times greater than others. Currently, coal is king, with coal-fired plants generating 41% of the world's electricity output – but also accounting for 80% of CO2 emissions from power production. Tomorrow, however, electricity-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions could be reduced through the use of renewable energies, which are inexhaustible and less polluting. Given that world electricity production is set to double by 2040, this possibility has become an imperative.
Added to the need to produce more electricity is the issue of cost, which can vary by as much as 700% depending on the fuel used and the cost of capital needed to build the plant. Introducing carbon pricing to offset the cost impact of emissions on the economy will make electricity generation even more expensive.
All of these criteria play a role in determining each country's electricity mix. At the global level, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has forecast that, by 2040, the share of coal used to generate electricity will have declined from 41% to 30%, while at the same time the share of renewable energies excluding hydropower will have risen proportionally1. The percentage of gas, hydro and nuclear power is projected to remain stable. These estimations are, however, subject to change, particularly depending on global production of shale gas.
(1) Source IEA

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