Study: majority of global energy demand is for electricity

By Luke Geiver | December 21, 2011

Exxon Mobil Corp.’s 2012 Outlook for Energy says electricity is the energy sector with the largest global demand, and by 2040, 15 percent of the world’s electricity will be generated by renewable fuels, including biomass.

“The world does not need to choose between economic growth and environmental stewardship,” said Rex Tillerson, Exxon Mobil Corp.’s chairman and CEO, in the report.

By 2040, the Outlook projects, global energy demand will be 30 percent higher than it is today, led by emerging economies and developing regions like China, India and Africa. The report also indicates that by 2040, global electricity demand will be 80 percent higher than it is today. “The fuels used to generate electricity will continue to shift away from coal and toward lower-carbon sources like natural gas, nuclear and renewable,” the outlook states. Electricity generation, the report added, is the largest and fastest-growing source of global energy demand, bigger than transportation and residential energy combined.

While the report points to natural gas as the fuel source with the greatest increase by 2040, accounting for 30 percent of global electricity needs (compared to 20 percent today), certain factors like construction time and public sentiment can sway the growth of an energy source. Although new power plants utilizing coal or nuclear power can cost $1 billion for a 1 gigawatt facility and take roughly five years for permitting and construction, the report also noted that like natural gas, renewable energy-based plants, including biomass, can be permitted and erected in less than two years. “Public sentiment also matters,” the report added. “For example, Japan’s Fukushima disaster is expected to slow global growth in nuclear capacity.”

By 2040, global electricity demand will be made up of 45 percent industrial use, 30 percent residential and 20 percent commercial use, the report said. And, by 2040, four out of every 10 units of energy produced in the world will be spent on the production of electricity. Although the energy outlook placed a great deal of emphasis on the role electricity demand will play in the energy landscape roughly three decades from now, the report rarely mentioned the role biomass will play in the energy mix, mentioning wind or natural gas instead.

Greenhouse gas emissions are a guiding factor in the use of renewable energy and are predicted to decline by 2040. While the United States’ per-capita emissions remain the highest in the world, the outlook said they are expected to decline significantly by 2040. Europe’s emission levels, which are half that of the U.S., will also decline, as will China’s, a country that has seen rising emission levels in recent decades.

As for coal, the outlook states that by 2040, demand and use will peak and then decline, the first time in modern history.