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The rise and stall of world electricity efficiency:1900-2017, results and implication for the renewables transition

Pinto, Ricardo and Henriques, Sofia and Brockway, Paul and Heun, Matthew and Sousa, Tânia (2022): The rise and stall of world electricity efficiency:1900-2017, results and implication for the renewables transition.

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Abstract

In the coming renewables-based energy transition, global electricity consumption is expected to double by 2050, entailing widespread end-use electrification, with significant impacts on energy efficiency. We develop a long-run, worldwide societal exergy analysis focused on electricity to provide energetic insights for this transition. Our 1900-2017 electricity world database contains the energy carriers used in electricity production, final end-uses, and efficiencies. We find world primary-to-final exergy (i.e. conversion) efficiency increased rapidly from 1900 (6%) to 1980 (39%), slowing to 43% in 2017 as power station generation technology matured. Next, despite technological evolution, final-to-useful end-use efficiency was surprisingly constant (~48%), due to “efficiency dilution”, wherein individual end-use efficiency gains are offset by increasing uptake of less efficient end uses. Future electricity efficiency therefore depends on the shares of high efficiency (e.g. electrified transport and industrial heating) and low efficiency (e.g. cooling and low temperature heating) end uses. Our results reveal past efficiency increases (carbon intensity of electricity production reduced from 5.23 kgCO2/kWh in 1900 to 0.49 kgCO2/kWh in 2017) did little to decrease global electricity-based CO2 emissions, which rose 380-fold. The historical slow-pace of transition in generation mix and electric end-uses suggest strong, urgent incentives are needed to meet climate goals.

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