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Lighting Up the World

Why electricity is good—and more is better.

Fortnightly Magazine - July 2011

ability of women to spend more time outside the home.

Indeed, greater electricity access quickly opens new doors for women, today a particularly vulnerable segment of the global population. Although women constitute 50 percent of the world’s population, they account for 70 percent of the poor. 34 There is a “feminization of poverty” that will be impossible to resolve without greater access to electricity and other forms of energy. Elizabeth Cecelski of Energia, an international network on gender and sustainable energy, says that there is a “gender bias in rural energy poverty, too, because the main source of energy in poor rural households is not biomass—it is women’s labor.” 35 In developing countries, the constant scour for energy is mostly reserved for women and their children. Daily household chores—gathering wood, carrying water, and cooking—are all either eliminated or made easier, safer, and healthier with the availability of electricity.

The Importance of Electrotechnologies

EPRI Fellow Clark Gellings wrote in a 2007 study:

“Tapping the energy-saving potential of electricity is an opportunity custom-made for today, as the issues of a sustainable energy future and a clean and safe environment become more urgent. In addition to addressing these needs, electrotechnologies offer a host of non-energy benefits, including improved manufacturing precision and control, enhanced product quality, increased worker productivity, and reduced environmental impacts. While efficient electrotechnologies are used throughout industry today, the potential for broader application remains, as does the potential for greater energy-efficient processes.”  36

When it comes to reducing demand and GHG emissions, Nobuo Tanaka, executive director of the IEA, calls energy efficiency “the ‘low hanging fruit’ with huge potential.” 37 The efficiency with which fossil fuels and renewable energies can be utilized is quite low in most applications and, for reasons of fundamental physics, inherently limited. For example, the best coal-fired plants convert only around 46 percent of input into electricity, and some gas turbines operate with capacity factors between 5 and 25 percent. 38 The internal combustion engine (ICE), meanwhile, converts just 20 percent of the energy stored in gasoline into useful motion, and wind and solar systems having capacity factors of 35 percent or so are considered advanced. 39 In contrast, the efficiency with which electricity can be used more than offsets the inefficiency of making it. Electricity is a very high quality form of energy and can be converted to mechanical energy (in running electric motors), thermal energy (in heating water), and electromagnetic radiation (in radio broadcast) with little loss of energy while changing form. Electric motors, for instance, convert over 90 percent of electricity into useful motion. 40

Electrotechnologies are systems and equipment that use electricity to produce and process consumer goods. From refrigerators to vacuum cleaners to laptop computers, electrotechnologies are all around us. Electrotechnologies are more efficient than their fuel-burning counterparts and, unlike standard fuels, have no waste products at the point of use. No smoke, ash, combustion gas, noise, or odor. In the United States, the evidence that using electricity increases energy efficiency can be seen in overall national trends ( see Figure 8 ).