Empirical Relations in the World Energy System

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In Chapter 13 of the 'World Energy Outlook 2002' titled Energy and Poverty, the International Energy Agency stresses the important role of energy and particularly that of electricity in the alleviation of world poverty. This paper was prepared in part as a preliminary exploration of factors relevant to the world electrical situation. The ratios of net electrical generation to various likely parameters of interest were plotted over the past decades to search for unexpected empirical relationships that may be useful in gaining some insight into the world energy economy. Straight-line segments were found when the ratios of world generation to primary energy, generation per capita, and carbon dioxide emissions per unit of electricity generated were plotted over time. A second purpose of this paper was to determine whether this approach is useful in the study of the possible dematerialization of the world economy.

Net electrical generation remains strongly linked to economic growth and, as a measurable and unchanging physical unit, could serve as a surrogate for world GDP without the complexities and inaccuracies of currency exchange corrections, purchasing power parity adjustments, etc., which plague its measurement. It is difficult to distinguish dematerialization from normal autonomous increases in energy efficiency because both reduce energy consumption per unit of GDP though these two processes are conceptually quite different. Nevertheless, because a dematerialized economy would still have a strong need for electricity, there is the possibility that the distinction between these two processes could be detected from plots of this kind. No strong evidence for dematerialization could be found in this paper but the trends resulting from plotting net electrical generation to world steel and to cement production over time were perplexing in that the two ratios behaved quite differently.

December 2002
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