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May 16, 2024

Why and how to measure electrification

How much of our electricity comes from low-carbon energy sources? This key question is the reason why this website was created. Generating electricity without fossil fuels is necessary to combat climate change (and would also clean up our air.) But while progress as measured by this metric is necessary, it is not sufficient – and overly focusing on the clean electricity metric can be a problem.

To understand why, let’s look at two countries which have already decarbonized most of their electricity: Brazil (92%) and Sweden (95%). Judging by the low-carbon electricity metric, these two countries appear to be almost done. Are they?

No. While their electricity is almost free of fossil fuels, they keep consuming coal, oil and gas outside of the power sector. Globally, almost all oil, two thirds of natural gas and one third of coal are used for purposes other than generating electricity. In other words, even with 100% low-carbon electricity worldwide, oil consumption would barely change, natural gas would only be reduced by one third, and one third of coal – the worst emitter of greenhouse gases of all fossil fuels - would remain.

The good news is that much of this other energy use can be electrified. Internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles can be replaced with electric cars, gas boilers can be replaced by heat pumps, and efforts are under way to replace coal used to produce steel and cement.

The low-carbon electricity metric fails to capture progress in these sectors. We need a new metric: one that measures how extensively energy use across all sectors has shifted to electricity. The low-carbon power metric measures progress inside the power sector – but how significant is the power sector to overall emissions? If a country has a clean grid, but this grid only powers a small share of the economy, then the impact of this decarbonization is limited. To be more specific, the impact on emissions is determined by the metric which this article is about: Electrification. Here’s one way to think about it:

Total Decarbonization = Low-carbon power (%) * Electrification (%).

This formula is simplistic, of course. It does not take into account exact emission factors of each energy source, and it suggests that non-electric energy sources are all fossil (which is mostly but not always true, biofuels and geothermal energy being significant exceptions in some regions). But, while simplistic, I think this formula is useful and a major improvement on the single low-carbon electricity metric.

So, how do we measure electrification? The intuitive answer may be:

Electrification = Electricity / Total Energy

The problem with this approach is that it is very difficult to calculate. This is because electricity and “total energy” are measured in different ways. Electricity is fairly straightforward – it’s the energy output generated by power plants. There are some energy losses during electricity transmission but these are relatively minor. Total energy, on the other hand, is much more complex. The most common measure is called primary energy which measures the energy content in fossil fuels before they are burnt. Energy losses incurred during the combustion of coal, gas and oil are major – in most cases, more than half of that energy content is lost to heat. Directly comparing electricity and primary energy is misleading because it suggests that 1 unit of primary energy needs to be replaced with 1 unit of electricity.

There is a workaround called the substitution method which estimates the primary energy equivalent of electricity based on estimates of average energy losses. Applying the substitution method to electricity and then comparing it to primary energy is one way to estimate electrification. Using averages is fine on a global scale (worldwide electrification in 2018 was 39.8% using IEA numbers, or 41.2% according to EI). But applying average energy loss numbers on a country-level introduces a lot of noise. For an extreme example, this method would claim that electrification in Norway in 2018 was 105% (using IEA numbers).

We could try to estimate primary energy conversion losses for each country, perhaps based on its specific energy mix – natural gas for example can be burnt with significantly higher effiency than coal. Electrification numbers created using this approach may end saying more about the estimates and assumptions of the calculation method than actual trends, though. Adding to the imprecision, different primary energy data sources sometimes report widely differing numbers. For example, if we use Energy Institute numbers, electrification in Switzerland in 2019 was 53%; if we instead use IEA numbers, it was is 64%. Which one is true?

We propose an alternative method. Instead of using primary energy numbers, we use greenhouse gas emission numbers for the energy sector as a whole, and compare these to emissions from the electricity sector. This method focuses on the actual environmental impact of electrification. Since the question we want to answer is what impact electricity is having on total emissions, it makes sense to start out with emission numbers.

Emissions from electricity generation depend on the energy source. Using IPCC numbers, wind and nuclear have the lowest emissions at around 12 gCO2eq/kWh. In contrast, emissions from coal are almost 70 times higher. If we directly compare actual electricity emissions to energy emissions, the ratio would be a measure of both electricity decarbonization as well as electrification. We want to isolate the impact of electrification. To do that, we need to first remove the impact of decarbonization.

We simulate a scenario where all electricity is generated by fossil fuels, allowing us to standardize measurement across different levels of decarbonization. This allows us to measure electricity in an even fashion, regardless of progress on decarbonization. The basic formula we use is:

Electrification = Fossil Electricity Emissions / (Fossil Electricity Emissions + Non-Electricity Energy Emissions)

One way to think about this metric is that, if electrificaton is 100%, then 100% of energy-related emissions depend on how electricity is generated. On the other hand, if electrification is just 20%, then decarbonizing the grid alone can only impact 20% of total energy emissions.

For data on energy sector emissions, we used the following sources: IEA, ClimateWatch, PIK, UNFCCC and the Energy Institute. In some cases, different sources report widely different numbers. We applied a filter such that only numbers that are confirmed by multiple sources (with a difference of less than 3%) are included.

Main Findings

Let’s revisit the two earlier examples. Our calculations give Brazil an electrification score of 52%. Sweden does better, at 81%. Both countries do better than the global average (48%) and both have more work to do. This metric gives us an idea of how much more work that is.

Which countries have the highest rates of electrification? The top 10 are:

Iceland 91.3%
Bhutan 90.0%
Paraguay 81.7%
Sweden 81.2%
Laos 79.4%
Norway 75.9%
Tajikistan 69.8%
Montenegro 68.7%
Malta 66.5%
Zambia 65.9%

Iceland is the most electrified country in the world, according to our calculations. It also has the highest electricity generation per capita by a large margin. Icelands small population, large availability of hydropower and its very significant aluminium industry make it an outlier.

It may be more surprising that Bhutan ranks second. This is in part because its electricity generation (all of it from hydropower) is greater than its domestic demand – in 2014 (the most recent year with consistent emissions data), 70% of electricity was exported. In terms of production, 90% of Bhutans energy sector is electrified, but in terms of consumption (excluding net exports), the number would be much lower.

Going down the list, it turns out that being a significant net exporter of electricity is a common feature of many of the highest ranking countries. Paraguay exports 60% of its electricity, Sweden 15%, Laos 78%, Norway 8%, Tajikistan 8%, Montenegro 5% and Zambia 7%. All of these countries would register lower electrification numbers if we excluded net exports. On the other hand, it seems fair to rank these countries highly – the extent to which their grids are decarbonized affects not only their own emissions but the emissions of neighboring countries.

High electrification, low decarbonization

If a country has achieved a high degreee of electrification, but most of its electricity is still fossil, it means that cleaning up its grid will have an exceptionally large impact on overall emissions. It turns out that there are several contenders:

Electrification Low-carbon electricity
Malta 66.50% 11.50%
Israel 64.40% 6.80%
Republic of China (Taiwan) 65.00% 16.90%
Hong Kong 66.00% 0
North Macedonia 59.50% 18.00%
Singapore 57.30% 1.60%

These regions are not often highlighted in the context of clean energy, and rightly so – but given their high degrees of electrification, when they do clean up their grids, they have the potential to quickly become decarbonization leaders.

Low electrification, high decarbonization

On the other extreme, there are countries which have very clean electricity grids, but where low degrees of electrification means that the impact on total emissions is limited:

Electrification Low-carbon electricity
Ethiopia 25.40% 99.90%
Congo - Kinshasa 29.00% 98.00%
Slovakia 40.10% 85.20%
Kenya 27.70% 85.10%
North Korea 29.40% 83.20%
Venezuela 32.70% 80.90%

These countries all have some of the cleanest electricity grids in the world, but electricity represents a relatively small share of total emissions. The main challenge going forward is to shift more of their energy use to electricity – and to expand low-carbon electricity generation to meet this added demand.

Who is getting better?

Perhaps the most interesting use of this data is to figure out which countries are improving the most. If we look at changes between the years 2000 and 2020, the most significant increases happened in:

Cambodia 11.3 40.3 %
Honduras 37.5 61 %
Iceland 71.6 93 %
People's Republic of China 30.4 51.3 %
Rwanda 5.7 23.7 %
Eritrea 17.9 35.4 %
Cyprus 34.4 50.2 %
Switzerland 43.5 59.2 %
Malaysia 27.5 43.2 %
Ecuador 26.5 41.9 %

The People's Republic of China stands out in this list due to the size of its economy and its significance to total emissions worldwide. During the same time period, the low-carbon share of electricity in the country increased from 17.9% to 32.8%. While very significant, progress in terms of electrification has arguably been as significant. We think electrification should receive more attention and hopefully the metric that we are proposing and this data can be a helpful contribution.

Electrification Ranking

Electrification Changes

Emissions Dataset

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