28 May, 2022


Electricity, Global Magnitudes

By S.Sivathasan


Electricity is perhaps the single factor to have transformed the world so profoundly and to have changed the quality of our lives beyond measure. Today scientists help reduce costs drastically and enable the benefits to reach society extensively. To the vast community of scientists, inventors, innovators, technologists and engineers, humanity stands beholden. A survey of the growth of electricity is interesting. The pace of growth is amazing. Why examine global magnitudes? The vicissitudes from the first plant to now, point to a certain phenomenon. Whatever the excellence of a technology, the economics of it as seen by the consumer determines choice as well as growth.


As at 2010, global production of electricity was 21.3 trillion kilo Watt hours (kWh). Of this, two-thirds came from fossil fuels. In percentage terms coal accounted for 41, gas 21 and oil 5. The balance was produced by hydro 16%, nuclear 13% and other renewables 3%. The installed capacity to produce this amount of power was 5.144 million mega watts (MW). The six segments by fuel source have been changing in size in this century. The most dramatic has been Wind and even more spectacular was Solar and that too in the last few years.


Ever since coal generated electricity started in 1882, it has retained its paramount place. Thirty years ago when non-conventional energy sources made their presence felt, it appeared that coal was approaching its demise and perhaps its exit. It will therefore make way for more socially desirable sources was the thought. But it was not to be. Actuality was that globally, coal generated electricity more than tripled. In the current decade it records 41%. Studies about its future prospects show a decline to 35% in 2040. Even so it will account for a production volume of coal based electricity that is higher than at present.

Coal fired power plants have been cheaper to build and to operate. Despite the stigma that it is a dirty fuel from mining, transport and burning, it has held its sway as a primary fuel to generate electricity. Estimate of recoverable coal made in 2008, places deposits at 861 billion tons. All types amount to 990 billion tons, enough for 100 to 150 years. This is a long term assurance for continued supply. Dispassionate studies by scientists show that by 2040, coal will continue its primacy at 35% though the decline is 6%. In the view of scientists, retrofitting existing ones to reduce atmospheric pollution will imply 20 to 30% more coal use. With capital cost of refurbishment added, response to this proposition will remain lukewarm.


The use of gas has been growing over the decades. As of now the cost of gas generated power is marginally higher at about7% compared to coal. Its ascent was swift because it was a clean fuel. It generated 13% electricity in 1990 and 25% in 2011. The share estimated for 2040 is 30%.

A recent development in the gas sector is the programme for huge exploitation of shale gas with new technologies. In the US, a powerful thrust comes from President Obama and success in natural gas development will have its impact in the petroleum sector as well. It is likely that increasing quantities going into power generation will stimulate stiff competition in solar and wind sectors. Coal is estimated to yield 18% of its share from 1990 to 2040. Much of it will be captured by gas.


Hydro power as the earliest among sustainables, enjoys a position of eminence. It is produced in 150 countries. Not all the projects are for power only. A fair share is multi-purpose with irrigation and flood protection components thrown in. In such cases a part of the capital cost gets excluded from the power segment. At 16% of total installed capacity worldwide, it is half of the non-fossil group. Though hydro as a fuel type contributes 17.8% to electricity generation, as a type of fuel it is only 6.4%

Hydro potential is not infinite and neither can prospecting for fresh sources proceed indefinitely. Economic viability is primary and there too costs comparative to other sources will decide. Sri Lanka provides a good example where economically attractive schemes are very nearly exhausted. This explains the high % of 44 for hydro in SL as at 2010.

Hydro schemes display a wide disparity in size. The largest Three Gorges in China has an installed capacity of 22,500 MW. Itaipu Dam in Brazil-Paraguay has 14,000 and Guri in Venezuela with 10,200. There are 53 other projects ranging in size from 2000 – 8300 MW.


Harnessing wind power for electricity has proceeded at a rapid pace in the last ten years. There was a nine fold increase from 31,000 MW in 2002 to 283,000 MW in 2012. Average annual growth rate was 25% from 2007 to 2012. Some 83 countries are engaged in wind power generation. China and US account for 60% of global market. China has a capacity of 75,564 MW and ranked first in2012. Denmark met 30% of her requirements from wind power. In India the largest wind power farm is in Muppanthal in the southernmost Kanniyakumari district of TN – the same latitude as Puttalam, Anuradhapura, Trincomalee, Vavuniya and Mannar.

Even though on shore wind power potential is high and only a fraction has been exploited, forays have been made into off shore, where potential is assessed as highest in US and China. Worldwide 13 countries have off shore turbines and 90% are in N. Europe. Global average for turbine capacity was 1.8 MW. In Germany the largest was 3.1 MW. Off shore ones were 5 MW and higher and the largest is 7.5 MW. Offshore tallest one has 143 meters hub height and Siemens has unveiled the longest 75 meter blade. All these innovations show the potential of technical advances to bring in higher levels of production per turbine.


Solar power had been in focus for quite some time. The oil crisis of 1973 stimulated interest in Photo Voltaics (PV). As a renewable and clean source it had great attraction. Yet its prohibitive cost stood against its spread. With R&D and subsidies PV installation went up from 31 MW of installed capacity in 1994 to 318 in 1999. Leadership shifted to Japan and Germany in mid-nineties. By 2002, cumulative production of PVs had risen to 2,402 MW. From that year, production doubled every two years averaging 48% annually. Since 2008 growth was exponential reaching 40,000MW in 2010, 71,000 MW in 2011 and the milestone100,000 MW of installed capacity in 2012.

Solar is one among four renewables and along with wind is gaining ascendancy in developing countries. There was a marked shift of markets to the developing world in 2012 with the developed world having an edge of only $20 billion. Outlays in that year were 46% of world total against 34% in 2011. It is likely that the developed will be overtaken in 2013. In terms of money committed in 2012, solar power was the leading sector among renewables commanding 57% of total new investment. In the period 2007 to 2012, the average annual growth rate for solar power was 60%. The year on year cost reduction on PVs had a strong impact. Even over five years back, grid tied electrical systems were available. Besides, roof tiles with integrated PV cables were purchasable off the shelf. From the beginning to end 2012 Germany has 1/3rd of world total, Italy 1/6th and China 1/12th.

All the desirable features of solar notwithstanding, it is rapidly declining cost of PVs that account for its phenomenal growth. In this respect China’s contribution is great both in volume and in unit cost reduction. Solar can become the most sought after power source, only after it crosses the parity barrier. As of now it is away from ‘grid parity’ ie being not on par with conventional ones on the grid. In a few years it is likely to be on the threshold of parity. Factors conducive to it are, research and development together with stimuli to demand, inducing economies of scale and thereby creating greater attractiveness. Solar with all its exponential growth in recent years yet remains a small segment in the global power sector accounting for only about 1%.


Commercial nuclear energy began in the fifties. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports that nuclear capacity in 2010 was 375,300 MW at 7.4% of world’s total electricity. In 2050, with retirement of obsolete ones, capacity at low projection is estimated at 560,000 MW which is 2.7% of total world capacity. After the Fukushima disaster, IEA halved its estimate of nuclear capacity to be built by 2035.

As of 2012, there were 437 nuclear power reactors in 31 countries. There were also 68 under construction of which 28 were in China. France meeting 74% of her electricity needs through nuclear, holds a record. Slovakia and Belgium at 51 plus each are second and third. Between a range of France at 74 % and Netherlands at 3.4%, altogether 18 countries have nuclear generated electricity in Europe. This fact should dispel apprehensions. There is however a negative note. Italy has banned nuclear and Germany with 28% at 2010 is closing down all by 2020.

Sri Lanka

In 2012 the world spent on average $ 30 per capita on solar and wind. If SL had gone apace she would have devoted $ 600 million for solar and wind. But granted the constraints, $ 210 million could have been devoted when the nation had the option to deliver a 70 Mega Watt mix of solar and wind electricity. It would have meant a break-through in clean energy. Instead a white elephant was purchased at $ 210 million for display at MATTALA as an airport complex. So goes the prudence of the rulers.


Exhaustive studies by scientific bodies take us to a futuristic world of power where the picture up to 2050 may be seen realistically. At present 1 billion people are without the benefits of power. In 40 years, when world population goes beyond 9 billion, about 80% of society if not more will be urbanized. The countryside too will be ‘rurbanized’.

The whole world will have electricity penetration. What is more, per capita availability shall have increased two and a half times. Making it more affordable will be the task of the scientist.


Never in history has human ingenuity stalled at impediments or withdrawn in the face of disasters. Malthusian fears have not been entertained for almost two centuries. Population increase of more than 40% in the last 60 years has had adequate food supplies. Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug and Prof MS Swaminathan, showed the way with the ‘Green Revolution’. In the last few decades annual grain surplus in the order of 20 to 30 million tons has banished food fears. FAO’s wealth of information, its exchange among states and easy accessibility to trade and the intelligentsia have forestalled hoarding and speculation. The spectre of ‘Bengal Famine’ no longer haunts. The truth behind it as failure at distribution is too well known.

‘Limits to Growth’ of 1972, failed to materialize as foretold, by 1990 and even thereafter. The authors’ recent ‘Revisit’ has only exaggerated the negatives without highlighting the successes or acknowledging affirmative actions. The oil crisis of the seventies helped development of alternatives. Natural Gas, Nuclear, Ethanol and Bio Fuels being among them. Brazil having ethanol pumps 100% alongside gasoline ones is an off shoot of the oil crisis. More importantly it provides a template for increased cane cultivation and ethanol production.

In like manner, the power sector too has proceeded on positive lines. New ground already plumbed has seen remarkable growth in recent times. Scientists hold the key to future promise and technology as always has responded proactively. With that confidence IAEA forecasts a per capita power requirement of 6.5 to 9 Mega Watt hours (MWh) by 2050, a 2.5 fold increase from 2010.

Fossil fuels have reigned supreme in producing electricity as a thermal resource. The IAEA estimates that thermal power fueling electricity generation in 2010 was 67%. Such use casts a shadow on the difficulties in curbing atmospheric pollution. We are born into the wrong century to choose only between pristine pastoral times and a serene developed world neither of which exist.

Swami Vivekananda said 120 years back “When you grow old you sit in some corner and croak and throw cold water on the enthusiasm of others”. As the future society becomes more vigorous, it will throw away restraint and overwhelm the meek. Confidence will be the mark of the generations to be. Eternal optimism is the price of success.

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Latest comment

  • 0

    Our local approach is portrayed as follows

    “Both turbines at the Kukule Ganga underground hydropower station have been dismantled due an unidentified defect, hence operations will halt for an approximate six weeks until both units are repaired under the inspection of Japanese technicians, Additional General Manager at the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) M.C. Wickramasekara told The Nation.

    Each worth approximately US$ 10 million, the two turbines collectively contribute 70 megawatts to the national grid daily. The two units have been designed and manufactured by Japan’s Toshiba Corporation. “The two turbines have been functioning smoothly from the time they were installed in 2003. However, as of now, one unit is completely dysfunctional and the other turbine too has been temporarily stopped from working as per advice of the Japanese technicians who inspected the equipment,” Wickramasekara said. – http://www.nation.lk/edition/news-online/item/18695-turbines-at-kukule-ganga-hydropower-station-stalled.html#sthash.33voclQi.dpuf

    This is the sad state of the CEB and the Engineering profession in Sri Lanka where it seems that machines are being run for 10 years and no plan for overhauling seems to have been in place. Even the defect is not identified.

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