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We live in an age of gadgets and gigabytes. Our mobile phones have morphed into multi-tasking life-support systems, with inbuilt cameras, calendars and messaging services. Computers are ever faster child’s play, and Internet allows us 24-hour access to the rest of the world. However, all of this comes at a price: our increasing reliance upon electricity.

World electricity generation rose at an average rate of 3.7% from 1971 to 2004. This is greater than the 2.1% growth in primary supply. And it’s not only our modern lifestyles that are the cause. Electrical heating in developed countries and rural electrification programmes in developing countries are also responsible for a surge in wattage.

So, where are we finding the fuel to feed our increasing quest for power? Coal still accounts for the largest number of terawatt hours (TWh) generated. There has been a significant move away from oil, which fell from being responsible for 20.9% of the world electricity generation in 1971 to just 6.7% in 2004. At the same time, nuclear energy has seen a rise from 2.1% to 15.7%, and much higher in many countries, including several of the largest industrial ones. Natural gas has also increased from 13.3% to 19.6%, while hydro-electricity’s share has in fact decreased from 23.0% to 16.1% of the total.

Renewable resources represent a tiny portion of the whole. Only 2.1% of total energy production was generated from new and renewable energies (solar, wind, geothermal, biomass and waste) in 2004.

OECD Observer N°261 May 2007