An All-Electric World: Sounds Great – Think Again


Increasingly, the world is using electricity. In 1973, global consumption of electricity was only 9% of the total. By 2009, the electricity share had increased to 17%[1].  Wouldn’t it be great if we could just “plug everything in”? Just as it is now with lights and computers, how convenient if everything ran on electricity. Hold on.

Global Energy Data

 The International Energy Agency (IEA) collects data on energy supplies and uses for countries and regions. Table 1 is the 2009 information for the World. So the data can be compared, the data are presented in billion ton oil equivalents (BTOEs).

The Table is divided into two sections: Supply and Consumption.  Under Supply, a negative figure means that energy went to a particular use. For example, 1,872 BTOEs of Coal/Peat went to Electricity Plants. A positive figure under Supply means that energy was added to. For example, Electricity Plants generated 1,561 BTOEs of electricity and CHP Plants generated 140 BTOEs of usable Heat.

Consumption provides the end uses of the energy products. For example, Industry consumed 579 BTOEs of the Electricity produced. And Transport consumed 27% (2,284/8,353) of consumed Energy.

Table 1. – Global Energy Supplies and Uses, 2009

Source: IEA

The Table highlights a number of important features of global energy supplies and use:

  • Coal, Crude Oil, and Nuclear are primarily inputs for other energies.
  • Crude Oil is refined into Oil Products used primarily in Transport.
  • Coal, Natural Gas and Nuclear are the primary providers of energy used to make electricity via Electricity Plants.
  • Residential buildings use about 24% of the energy supplied; commercial buildings account for 8% of energy use.

Electricity Losses

Perhaps the most important point to draw from Table 1 is the energy lost in making and transmitting electricity. Look at the first 6 columns in the Electricity Plants row. It shows that 3,850 BTOEs of energy went into making electricity. Now look at the Consumption row for electricity – only 1,441 BTOEs of electrical energy was generated. That means 62% of the energy used to make electricity was lost. That wasted energy amounted to 29% of global energy consumption in 2009!

This loss is directly analogous to the food losses due to human preferences for steaks over grains. As Frances Moore Lappé pointed out in 1982, US livestock consume ten times the grain that Americans eat directly[1].

We could avoid the huge electricity losses if we could use some of the energy used in Electricity Plants directly. Of course, there are not that many practical end uses for coal or nuclear energy. And one of the attractions of generating electricity is that you can do it many energy forms. But we don’t need electric cars. Natural gas and its derivatives are widely used to power motor vehicles.

And batteries, the storage vehicles for electricity? Talk about compounding inefficiencies! I quote from a previous piece:

“A good example of the battery problem is comes from Rolls-Royce. Its 102EX model is a 6,000-pound, all-electric auto with a 1,400-pound lithium-ion battery. Under ‘favorable conditions’, it can travel 125 miles before needing a recharge that takes eight hours.”

And are there further electricity losses when the monster battery is recharged? Take a guess.


It is certainly a luxury to “plug in” an appliance, just like it is a luxury to eat a steak. But the global inefficiencies/waste are tremendous.

[1] Diet for a Small Planet. New York: Ballantine Books, 1982

[1] International Energy Agency, World Energy Outlooks

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