HOW GREEN IS OUR ELECTRICITY?

Renewable energies set for worldwide growth

No doubt about it: electric motors are efficient and thereby sustainable for this reason alone. But of course it matters whether the charging electricity comes from renewable energy sources or from a brown coal power station. Heartbeat therefore asks the question: where does the electricity for electric-drive vehicles actually come from?

Renewable energies, also called just “renewables,” are on the rise. In Germany, wind, solar, hydro, and biomass power stations generated a combined 162,500 gigawatthours (GWh) of electricity in 2014. For comparison: in 2000 it was just 36,000 GWh, constituting about 27% of all electricity generated in 2014. With a share of over 40%, coal admittedly remains the most important energy source in Germany, but the renewables are close behind the fossil fuels: their share was already about 30% in 2015. A more exact breakdown of renewables also reveals interesting insights: while hydropower stations were still contributing almost 22,000 GWh in 2000 and thus just under two thirds of total output, in 2014 their share was just under 20,000 GWh—only about 13%. Today wind power is the most important renewable energy source: wind power produced 9,500 GWh at the turn of the century. In 2014, it generated almost 56,000 GWh and thus more than a third of all renewable energies. By contrast, solar power has posted the largest relative growth in the past 15 years. In 2000, panels installed inGermany produced no more than 60 GWh. In 2014, they were already generating over 36,000 GWh, i.e. a 600-fold increase.

Hydropower No. 3 worldwide

Boasting an almost 30% share of gross electricity generation, Germany is a pioneer in renewable energies among industrial nations. But other countries are already even further ahead: Norway, for example, despite having numerous oil and gas fields, produces up to 97% of its electricity sustainably. Other countries—for example, Albania, Ethiopia, and Paraguay—also score almost 100% in this area. Any mention of renewable energies almost always refers to hydropower in these cases. With a total worldwide share of about 16%, hydro energy is currently not only the undisputed No. 1 among the “renewables” from a global perspective, but also the third most important energy source for electricity production overall. Only coal and natural gas produce more electricity worldwide. Solar and wind power are also becoming more important: other renewable energies altogether contribute about 5% to worldwide electricity production—and the trend is rising.

AT AROUND 16%, HYDROELECTRIC POWER IS THE THIRD-LARGEST SOURCE OF ENERGY PRODUCTION

China is the largest electricity market

Within this context, it is interesting to take a look at China. With production at over 5,500 terawatt hours (TWh) per year, China has become the largest electricity producer in the world. In 2000, gross electricity production was still at 1,368 TWh. Rapidly increasing demand for electrical energy could only be met through massive expansion of coal power stations. Hunger for coal has accordingly grown in the past several years: in 2000, the oil equivalent of 679 million tons was consumed. In 2013, this figure had already reached 1.62 billion. Coal will remain the most important energy source in China for the foreseeable future, but its electricity market is likewise in transition. The share of fossil fuels contributing to gross electricity production reached its peak of 81% in 2007 and since then has slowly dropped to its current 78%. Since 2014, coal consumption has stagnated in China, even in absolute figures. On the one hand, this must be attributed to the somewhat cooler economic climate, but also of course to the massive expansion of renewable energies. China has undertaken enormous efforts regarding renewables in the past decade: installed output now lies at 378 GW, more than anywhere else in the world. Hydropower most recently contributed over 1,000 TWh to gross electricity production, i.e. just under 20%.

Wind power on the fast track

Wind power has undergone an even more vigorous expansion than hydropower in China over the past ten years. In 2015 alone, installed capacity grew by over 30 GW, thereby reaching a lofty 145 GW. In 2005, the installed output of all wind power stations in China was only 1.2 GW. China is now producing more electricity with wind power than with its atomic power plants: in 2015, it was 186 TWh, corresponding to 3.3% of total electricity production. Wind power has assumed a key role in the further expansion of renewable energies: installed capacity is already expected to reach 350 GW in 2020.

IF THE WORLD’S BIGGEST MARKET FOR ELECTRICITY CAN HANDLE THE TRANSITION TO NEW FORMS OF ENERGY, SO CAN THE REST

Moreover, Beijing is also consistently expanding its solar and biomass energy capacities. If China continues to develop renewable energies at this rate, many experts see good chances for the country to achieve a sustainable energy transformation. If the largest electricity market on the planet masters the challenges of energy transformation, one can assume that the rest of the world will manage to do so as well. That in turn could also help electro-mobility achieve a breakthrough—because only sustainably produced electricity can make driving with electric vehicles truly “green.”