The production of electricity and CO2 emissions in the world, which solutions?

12 June 2023 | digital pollution

The electricity stays indispensable in many human activities. Yet, it still represents the main cause of CO2 emissions in the world. To produce some electricity, it needs in fact a source of primary energy such as coal, wind, uranium, or others. With deforestation and global warming threatening permanently the Earth’s atmosphere, it becomes essential to think about limiting carbonic gas emissions by proposing other electric solutions. Thus, other alternatives more ecologic are proposed to obtain lower carbon emissions.

What are the CO2 emissions linked to global electric production?

In order to understand easily, we need to know why the electric production is polluting. This is simply because of the mechanism to be activated for its creation. Indeed, the electric current comes from a move of electrons. If we should talk with more technical words, the current is obtained from the conversion of a mechanical move in electric energy. To create this move, methods are many, but the rotation of the turbine seems to be the easiest to develop. Unfortunately, to make the turbine work, centrals use the water vapor. To obtain this list, it needs to consume energy, often fossil.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the global emissions of CO2 providing from electricity is the equivalent of 41% of the global emissions due to the energy combustion. This represents many billions of tons of carbonic gas. Only in China, the energy sector (electric or not) represents 83% of the CO2 emission of the country.

On the contrary, in the European Union, the emission of GHG linked to the electric production are of 28.9% so nearly 3.8 Gt CO2 equivalent. The part of carbon emission is 81%, and 10% comes from methane.

In France, the annual emissions of greenhouse gasses are 445 Mt CO2 equivalent, with 74.5% for CO2 and 12.6% for methane emissions (CH4). It’s important to know that these emissions correspond to the perimeter of Kyoto’s protocol (metropole and overseas).

Despite these numbers that seem astronomic, the electricity produced in most developed countries know a proportional decrease of CO2 emissions compared to the 90s. This is because of an effort of emissions reduction for the struggle against global warming.

Modes of pollution the most and the least CO2 emitters for the production of electricity

Fossil-fired power plants

Fossil-fired power plants are the most common for electricity production. This is because they are the cheapest ones. Here, the mechanism rests on the use of fossil energies for combustion, also the coal, the oil resource, natural gas or the biomass (household and vegetable waste).

This mode of energy production currently contributes at 40% of the produced electricity in the world thanks to its energetic efficacy and its price. Yet, it’s the method that emits the most carbon dioxide per kWh produced. For countries like China or India, for example, the carbon footprint is very high because of the use of coal for fossil combustibles.

Nuclear power plants

To produce the electricity, power plants employ the heat providing from the fission of uranium atoms 235 or of plutonium 239. The average emissions providing from this type of power plants are less high than those of thermal power plants. If these power plants cause other problems, in particular the extraction, the enrichment and reprocessing of radioactive waste, it’s nowadays one of the sources that emits the least of CO2 for the electrical energy production.

Hydraulic power plants and wind turbine

Still in this objective to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions, it exists power plants that feed with wind and water to make the turbines work. Electric energy is so obtained without any fossil energies’ needs.

The ones using dams are called hydraulic power plants. They feed with the strength of water (natural waterfalls, dams, tides, currents). Since a while, we have found new technologies that use the sea as a source of energy. There are for example tidal turbines, the sort of underwater wind turbines, which are carried by the marine currents.

Power plants working with wind are wind turbines. They are easily remarkable with their huge blades that are useful to catch the wind. Generally, to provide the energetic needs of a small town, the wind power plants need to contain between 5 to 50 machines.

Solar photovoltaic power plants

Composed of panels, the solar photovoltaic power plant exploits the energy providing from the sunlight. It’s important to not confuse this mode of production with the solar thermal power plant. Here, it’s instantly the solar ray that produces energy, without the help of mirrors.

Comparison of CO2 emissions from production methods

Here’s a comparison of the produced carbon intensity by every method of production.

For the fossil energy, the numbers are in kgCO2e/kwh:

  •         Gas power plant= 0.418
  •         Fuel power plant= 0.73
  •         Coal power plant= 1.06

For the green energy:

  •         Hydraulic power plant: 0.006
  •         Earth wind turbine: 0.0141
  •         Underwater wind turbine= 0.0156

For the nuclear power plant, the carbon balance is 0.006 kgCO2e/kwh.

We notice that the carbonic gas rejection coming from the power plant is the same as the one of the nuclear power plant. The difference rests on the fact that the hydraulic power plant can’t compensate itself the energetic consumption of a big town.

In contrast, this does not mean that the nuclear power plant has no impact on the environmental plan. For its construction, it’s necessary to need the energy and polluting raw materials. Moreover, the big problem is the management of waste at the end of its life.

Thus, green energies are the best ones to limit the CO2 emissions.

What are the ways to reduce carbon emissions from energy production?

For the struggle against global warming, an intergovernmental remedy as the Paris Agreement was established to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions as much as possible. This consists to make an energy mix in the meanwhile to reach the desired carbon neutrality for the next few years. On this point, it’s to know that the economic growth of countries contributes to the emissions growth. Thus, according to the estimates of the international energy agency, the global electric production should double by 2040, in particular in countries such as China, India or the United States. This is because of the need in electricity that can’t stop growing for the good development of many industries (companies, commerce, public services, etc.).

Yet, the energy-climate plan becomes more and more important for the environment. The goal of the energy mix is to proceed step by step to an energy transition so that by 2050, green energies become the main source of energy in the world. It’s the case in France, for example, the IEA estimates that if currently the country employs green energies up to 11%. This should go up to 16% for the solar photovoltaic systems with an 11% decrease of additional emissions thanks to solar power plants by 2050.

For this, the state encourages the use of solar photovoltaic systems, and this even for residential use. With solar energy, we could obtain a limit of cumulative emissions up to 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year. This equals to the global CO2 emissions related to the transportation sectors at this day.

The emissions reduction per inhabitant

For the reduction of emissions per inhabitant, it exists some techniques to obtain energetic economies. This could go from simple gestures from major work of installations. We can also adopt solar auto consumption or the use of low-tech technologies. Here, the goal is not only to reduce the electricity bill, but also to limit the CO2 emissions.

Compensate the carbon emissions

Despite the struggle efforts against global warming, it exists carbon emissions that are still impossible to limit. In order to reduce the impact of these emissions, it is possible to opt for policies of carbon compensation. But is it a good or bad idea? The concept rests on the use of environmental projects allowing to catch carbon. In other terms, particulars and companies can support projects to balance their carbon footprint. It could be a project of technology deployment with green energy or tree plantation for the CO2 absorption.

And the digital carbon footprint in all this?

Digital consumes between 10 to 15% of electricity on a global scale. If digital was a country, it would be the third consumer of electricity behind China and the United States of America. And this consumption increases up to 6% every year. It is also responsible for more than 6% of CO2 emissions in the world in 2020.

With the use that is still important to sites, applications, networks, streaming, etc. … this consumption will continue to grow. Without forgetting the environmental impact on data centers.

In order to reduce the digital carbon footprint, Greenoco develops solutions to measure and reduce the carbon footprint of websites.

By using Greenoco, you can so reduce the electric consumption of servers hosting your site, 10 to 74% depending on sites, and also reduce the carbon footprint of your website.

You want to involve your organization or company in an approach to digital sobriety?

Contact us to realize an audit and optimize the resources of your website.

In the meanwhile, you can still test our website’s carbon footprint.

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