“Providing a service with greater economic value does not necessarily require any more electricity than a lower-value service.”
This is one of the conclusions reached by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) in a short study, published in June, looking at global growth in per capita electricity consumption. It indicates that economic growth can be achieved without creating additional electricity demand, an important finding for countries undertaking clean energy transitions in order to combat climate change.
However, overall, the EIA found that global electricity consumption continues to rise faster than the world population, so that each person on average is using more electricity.
In developed economies, electricity consumption per capita has flattened out, but at very different levels. For example, in the US, electricity consumption per person fell nearly 7% between 2000 and 2017, but remains at the highest average level globally — about 12,000 kWh a year. Similarly, Japan and Germany have seen little growth over the same period, but their electricity consumption per person has stabilised at just under 8,000 kWh/yr and just over 6,000 kWh/yr, respectively.
While Germany uses nearly 50% less electricity per person than the US, its GDP per capita, based on 2018 levels, was 75.8% that of the US, and, on some standard of living indices, it scores significantly higher than the US.
Even in the US, the 12,000 kWh/yr figure masks huge internal differences, the EIA found. For example, electricity use per capita in the state of Wyoming was over 25,000 kWh/yr, compared with less than 7,000 kWh/yr in California. The data for developed countries shows that as economies mature, per capita electricity consumption neither rises continuously, nor are nations necessarily on a relentless growth path towards US levels of consumption. Instead electricity use per person stabilises at different levels, depending on the nature of the particular economy.
However, there is no certainty that past trends will continue into the future. The pursuit of net zero carbon targets by many countries to address climate change is a major break with the past. The decarbonisation of transport and heating, for example, are almost certain to be achieved at least in part by the greater electrification of these sectors, putting upward pressure on per capita electricity demand in developed and developing countries alike.
At the same time, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has warned that countries need to improve energy efficiency at a faster rate. In its Energy Efficiency Indicators 2019 report, the IEA said many energy efficiency opportunities remain untapped and could be scaled up.
So just as decarbonised transport and heating create more electricity demand, major renovation plans in the EU to improve the energy efficiency of buildings, for example, should reduce electricity consumption.
In contrast to developed economies, per capita electricity demand in developing countries remains on an upward trajectory and has in fact accounted for nearly all the growth in per capita electricity consumption between 2000 and 2017, the EIA data shows.
This reflects rising incomes, creating greater demand for services such as appliances and air conditioning, and industrialisation, in part outsourced from more mature economies. It also means that developing economies face a greater challenge than developed countries in decarbonising their energy systems.
Not only do they have to decarbonise existing electricity supply, but build new clean energy capacity to meet a higher rate of electricity demand growth, underlining the need for international cooperation in addressing climate change.
Photo credit: shutterstock.com, Owen Suen