If you want to understand energy issues it is always worth having some key numbers memorised. This let’s you do quick, and often powerful, mental sums, and it’s also a vital tool in your bullshit detection kit*.
It’s worth knowing that in typical western economies per-capita CO2 emissions are 7-10 tonnes – of course, North Americans aren’t typical – and that the average person in Britain, Germany or Japan consumes the equivalent of 3 or 4 tonnes of oil each year, roughly half that in America and double that in China.
Here is another one that is probably worth having somewhere in you mind: The percentage of electricity generation lost in transmission.
Nothing is absolutely perfect, and that includes transmission lines and transformers. Run electrical energy through a wire and some of it will end up becoming heat. As a result, not all all of the electricity generated at a giant rural coal power plant makes its way to the cities that consume most of our electricity.
How much energy is lost in transmission? This can be calculated by looking at EIA data for generation and transmission (available here). EIA publishes generation and transmission figures (in billion kWhs, a rather unseemly unit) from 1980 to 2012 for most countries. I could show them all to you, but that would be labouring a point.
Instead, I will show data for 12 representative countries. Below is the percentage of electricity lost in transmission for the most relevant modernised economies, the B, R, I and C of BRICS, and Mexico.
The numbers are relatively clear. In typical modernised economies roughly 6-9% of electricity generated is lost in tranmission. None of the modernised economies lose more than 10%. Japan and South Korea have lower losses than anywhere else, and I guess this is down to high population density.
Things are different in developing economies. In 2000, India lost around 30% of its electricity in transmission. However, this has improved significantly, and it is now down to around 18%. Meanwhile, Russia and Mexico can still improve a lot on their losses, but not as much as India has.
China however appears to have always had losses at the levels of typical modernised economies, and its transmission losses are essentially identical to America’s today . Whether this is real or simply a result of deliberate misreporting of statistics is not clear. The unreliability of China’s official statistics has long been a topic of academic research – just look at pork statistics – but I cannot find any research on whether their transmission loss figures are reliable. Perhaps there is a paper waiting to be written.
So, there you go. At most 10% of electricity is lost in transmission, unless you don’t have the luck of living in a modernised economy.
*Ernest Hemingway, I believe invented the term, despite it often being attached to Carl Sagan. Though Hemingway cut the bull, he simply it a “shit detector”.
Note on calculation
Data was analysed in R and plotted using ggplot2. The original data is taken from the Energy Information Agency, which in turn takes most of their data from national statistical agencies. The plot shown simply compares generation and transmission losses in each year. It could be more accurate by accounting for electricity imports, but the story would only change marginally (and I am putting the final layer of paint on to my thesis, and should not even be writing this blog post.)