Doing it by numbers

As always, the International Energy Agency’s annual Key World Energy Statistics is a cornucopia of data, ripe for cherrypicking to suit anyone’s interests or need to make a point.

Something that catches my attention each year is the comparison the agency draws with the 1970s (which were a time of major geopolitical turbulence created by energy issues). In the case of coal use, for example, the IEA reports that last year saw 7,269 million tonnes produced — compared with 3,074 Mt in 1973. The part of the pie-chart on this aspect that immediately draws my eye is how the Chinese share has soared from 13.6 per cent to 44.5 per cent while the overall OECD share has fallen away from 55.6 per cent to 23.7 per cent. All sorts of angles strike me in looking at this — like the fact that the greet green exemplar to us all, Germany, last year produced 176 Mt of coal and was still a net importer of 53 Mt.

The Germans have spent $US780 billion on subsidies for green electricity in the past decade with the aim of cutting their carbon emissions in 2020 by 40 per cent below the 1990 level. Thanks in no small measure to forcing out nuclear power and having to rely on 140 coal-fired power stations, the outlook is that Germany will achieve no more than a 30 per cent cut at the decade’s end — but this is not creating a screaming political row there in the elections that reach their denouement on Saturday. This may change if Angela Merkel is forced to pursue the so-called “Jamaica coalition” — with the Greens and Free Democrats — because the Greens are demanding the closure of 20 coal plants as the price for their support.

Coming back to the IEA document, another segment that interests me is the breakdown of global electricity consumption by sector. The agency chooses to render this in millions of tonnes of oil equivalent and in this issue compares 1973 and 2015 (it is notoriously hard to round up all the data for the immediate past year, so this stuff always lags — something journalists here seizing on the power price data in this publication should bear in mind; the Australian figures are not current). The agency pie-chart shows that global power demand has soared from 440 mtoe in 1973 to 1,737 mtoe in 2015 — and in this time heavy industry’s share of consumption has fallen from 53.5 per cent to 42 per cent while residential, public service and commercial consumption has gone from 38.2 per cent to 49.3 per cent.

With the endless focus in our local public debate on the role of coal, and especially its use for power generation, it is worth noting the global shares of coal use in 2015: iron and steel 29.3 per cent (a big rise from 17.5 per cent in 1973), chemicals and petrochemicals 10.5 per cent (a tripling of the 1973 share) and non-metallic minerals 22.2 per cent (a five-fold increase). Prating about the “death of coal” in this context is pretty silly, really. (It’s also worth noting, I suggest, a commentary in this week’s London Financial Times pointing out that the IEA seems to be now predicting “a long plateau” in coal use, with demand stable at around today’s level of 160 quadrillion BTU out to 2050. Very sensibly, the writer goes on to comment that “no one should put too much faith in (such) long-term projections.” I wish his peers here could show more understanding of this point.)

Elsewhere in the IEA publication, I see its calculation that the latest (2015) estimate of global electricity consumption is 24,255 terawatt hours (our Australian total is 250 TWh, less than half of what is used each by the South Koreans, French, Brazilians, Germans and Canadians and a fifth of the Japanese and Russian totals). The share of electricity regionally has changed very markedly since 1973 — when the OECD countries dominated with 72.8 per cent and now have 44.7 per cent. China accounted for just 2.9 per cent then and now uses 24.3 per cent of all electricity. Non-OECD Asia’s share has jumped from 2.7 per cent to 11.3 per cent.

A moral of all this is that the world is a very big place and that, in our own power consumption, we play a pretty small role — while at the same time, of course, playing a pretty big one in terms of our coal, gas and uranium exports to help the international community with their energy requirements.

There’s another set of data in this agency publication that is worth focus: of the 24,255 TWh consumption of electricity, 9,538 TWh is sourced from coal plants, 5,543 TWh comes from gas plants and all forms of renewable generation contribute 5,534 TWh. In a pie chart, the agency points out that in 2015, coal generation met 39.3 per cent of power production, gas 22.9 per cent, hydro power 16 per cent and nuclear 10.6 per cent, leaving a share of 7.1 per cent for non-hydro renewables and waste.

In this great scheme of things, solar PVs contributed 247 TWh (of which 6 TWh was generated here in Australia) from an estimated 220,000 megawatts of capacity.

Wind power delivered 838 TWh in 2015 from 414,000 MW of capacity.

By comparison, hydro-electric power delivered 3,978 TWh from 1,205 MW, of which a quarter of the dams systems are to be found in China.

(By the way, what’s the country with the largest hydro share of domestic electricity generation?  The answer is Norway — 95.9 per cent — with Brazil at almost 62 per cent and Canada at almost 57 per cent. The latter number is worth bearing in mind when local media, as The Australian has done today, make a fuss that our electricity bills are double what Canadians pay.)

My nuclear friends would not be happy if I failed to also point out that their favorite generation source accounted for 2,571 TWh of global production in 2015 from 383,000 MW of capacity. (The reactors’ share of Canadian supply was 15 per cent, giving that country 72 per cent of non-carbon power from dispatchable sources versus 3.9 per cent from wind turbines. The Canadians got 26 TWh from 11,200 MW of wind capacity in 2015. The neighbouring US got 193 TWh from 72,600 MW of wind farms in 2015 compared with 830 TWh from 99,000 MW of nuclear plants.)

And finally, it always interests me to see how the IEA slants its media commentary when it publishes this stuff. The lead sentence for its media statement about the Statistics publication says: “China is the world’s largest consumer of coal, but it also has more wind and solar generation than any other country.” I could think of five or six other ways to introduce this document that might convey a rather more balanced view of the big energy picture. From the agency’s membership perspective, for example, it might  have highlighted somewhere that these 35 nations (including us) accounting for well more than four in every 10 electrons produced around the world have a generation mix that now stands at 28 per cent for each of coal and gas, 18 per cent for nuclear, 13 per cent for hydro and 11 per cent for all the forms of non-hydro renewables.



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