How Is The World’S Power Generated?

Electricity powers the modern world, from homes and businesses to communications and transportation. Globally, power generation relies on a mix of energy sources, from fossil fuels like coal and natural gas to renewable sources like solar and wind. The global power sector produces over 25,000 terawatt hours of electricity annually to meet rising demand. While fossil fuels still dominate, renewables are the world’s fastest growing energy source as countries transition to carbon-free power.

The world’s energy mix varies widely by region and nation, shaped by resource availability, energy policies, and economic development. No single source dominates worldwide. Coal provides the largest share in parts of Asia while natural gas and nuclear lead in North America and Europe. Hydropower generates much of South America’s electricity. Overall, renewables account for a quarter of global power but over half in countries like Denmark.

As the costs of renewables decline, global power generation is undergoing a major transition. While fossil fuels will remain important in the near term, many nations are setting ambitious renewable energy targets to combat climate change. The growth of affordable clean power technologies points to a more sustainable energy future.

Fossil Fuels

Fossil fuels like coal, natural gas, and oil account for a large share of the world’s electricity generation. These energy sources are burned to produce steam that spins turbines to generate power. Fossil fuels are non-renewable resources formed from the remains of plants and animals that lived millions of years ago.

Coal is one of the largest sources of electricity globally, providing about 37% of the world’s power. Coal is burned in power plants to heat water and produce high-pressure steam that drives turbine generators. Countries like China, India, and the United States rely heavily on coal for electricity.

Natural gas is also a major electricity source, providing about 23% of global power generation. Natural gas power plants burn the gas to generate steam and spin turbine generators. Natural gas emits less carbon dioxide compared to coal when burned for electricity.

Oil accounts for about 3% of global electricity production. Most oil-fired power plants use the steam from burning petroleum products to drive turbines. However, oil is more commonly used for transportation than electricity generation.


Nuclear power plants generate electricity through nuclear fission, where atoms are split apart to release energy. Uranium is used as the fuel inside nuclear reactors which sustain a controlled chain reaction. The process heats water into steam, which then spins turbines to produce electricity. Nuclear provided about 10% of the world’s electricity in 2018. France generates over 70% of its power from nuclear while the US produces about 20%.

Advocates argue nuclear power emits zero greenhouse gases while opponents cite safety risks from accidents and nuclear waste. New generation III/III+ reactor designs aim to be safer and more efficient. Small modular reactors are also being developed. Overall, the share of nuclear power has declined after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan while renewables have risen.


Hydropower is one of the oldest methods of generating electricity and currently provides around 16% of the world’s power. It relies on flowing water – usually from dams – to spin large turbines that generate electricity.

Most hydropower is generated using dams that are built across rivers. The dam stores water in a reservoir and controls the flow of water that is released to turn the turbines. The amount of electricity that can be generated depends on the volume and speed of the water flow. Building large dams and reservoirs allows hydropower facilities to generate a constant supply of electricity.

Some hydropower plants use run-of-river designs, which channel a portion of a river through turbines without the need for dams or reservoirs. However, these generate less power because the water flow is more variable.

Hydropower is considered renewable and clean, producing much less greenhouse gas emissions compared to fossil fuel sources. However, large dam projects can impact local ecosystems and communities. But with climate change causing droughts in some regions, hydropower output has become less reliable in recent years.


Wind power harnesses the kinetic energy from air flow to generate electricity using wind turbines. As wind pushes the turbine blades, a rotor spins, which turns a shaft connected to a generator to produce electricity. Wind turbines come in various sizes and configurations, with multi-megawatt utility-scale turbines clustered together in wind farms, while smaller turbines can provide power for a single home or business.

Wind is a renewable and clean energy source that produces no greenhouse gas emissions during operation. Installed wind power capacity has grown rapidly in recent decades, with over 650 gigawatts generated globally. The amount of electricity produced depends on the turbine size and wind speeds in the area. Offshore wind farms allow access to stronger and more consistent winds. Wind power helps diversify the energy mix and reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

While an increasingly affordable option, wind power can be intermittent as output depends on weather conditions. Good site selection and technological improvements help maximize productivity. Other considerations include impacts on birds, land use constraints, and local community acceptance. Overall, wind energy continues to expand as a sustainable electricity source that harnesses natural airflow processes with minimal environmental disruption.


Solar power harnesses energy from the sun to generate electricity. There are two main technologies used:

Solar Panels

Solar panels, also known as photovoltaic (PV) panels, are made up of solar cells containing photovoltaic material. When sunlight hits the panels, electrons are knocked loose from the atoms, creating electricity that can be used immediately or sent into the grid. Solar panels can be installed on rooftops or ground-mounted systems and generate clean, renewable electricity. The amount of power generated depends on how much sunlight strikes the panels.

Concentrated Solar Power

Concentrated solar power (CSP), also known as concentrated solar thermal, uses mirrors or lenses to concentrate sunlight onto a receiver. The concentrated sunlight heats up a fluid, which produces steam to spin a turbine and generate electricity. Excess heat can also be stored so electricity can be produced when the sun isn’t shining. CSP requires direct solar radiation and is more suitable for concentrated installation in sunny, arid regions.


Geothermal energy comes from harnessing the heat within the earth itself. By drilling into areas with hot underground rock, we can tap into reservoirs of steam and superheated water. This geothermal fluid can then be used to generate electricity in power plants, providing a clean and renewable energy source.

Geothermal power plants are usually built where there are naturally occurring hot springs or geysers. These areas allow easier access to geothermal reservoirs. Iceland and New Zealand are major producers of geothermal power given their location along tectonic plate boundaries with abundant volcanic activity. In the United States, geothermal plants are concentrated in western states like California, Nevada, and Utah.

Geothermal energy has several advantages. It produces minimal carbon emissions and none of the air pollution associated with burning fossil fuels. Geothermal power plants also have a small land footprint compared to other types of power plants. However, geothermal energy is limited to areas with accessible heated rock and groundwater. Upfront costs for drilling and exploration can also be high. Overall, geothermal provides a steady and renewable power source, but its potential is geographically constrained.


Biofuels are fuels derived from biomass, or plant and animal material. The most common biofuels used for energy production are:

  • Bioethanol – Made from fermenting crops high in sugar or starch like corn, sugarcane or wheat. Used as a gasoline replacement.
  • Biodiesel – Made from vegetable oils, animal fats or recycled greases. Used as a diesel replacement.
  • Biogas – Methane gas produced from decomposing organic matter like crop residues or animal manure. Used for heating, electricity and fuel.

Biofuels are considered renewable energy since we can grow more biomass feedstock. They also have lower carbon emissions compared to fossil fuels. However, biofuel production can compete for land and resources needed for food crops. Advanced biofuels made from non-food crops, agricultural residues and waste streams help to address these concerns.

Some key benefits of biofuels include:

  • Provide a renewable, domestic energy source in many countries.
  • Support energy independence and security.
  • Offer an alternative vehicle fuel as oil supplies decline.
  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions compared to fossil fuels.
  • Provide income and jobs in the agricultural sector.

Global biofuel production has grown rapidly in recent decades, led by the United States and Brazil. However, biofuels still only provide around 3% of the world’s transportation fuel. Most energy forecasts expect biofuels to continue gaining market share as countries seek to expand renewable energy and reduce carbon emissions from fossil fuels.

Regional Differences

The mix of energy sources used to generate electricity varies widely across regions and countries. Here are some key regional differences:

North America: The United States and Canada rely heavily on fossil fuels like coal, natural gas, and oil, but also utilize substantial nuclear and hydroelectric power. Renewables like wind and solar play an increasing role, especially in the western U.S.

Europe: The European Union has made major investments in renewables like wind and solar, but still depends on nuclear and some coal and natural gas. However, countries vary – France gets most of its electricity from nuclear while Iceland generates almost all its power from geothermal and hydropower.

Asia: China generates much of its electricity from coal, but has also become dominant in hydro, wind, and solar power. Japan relies on imported fossil fuels but is also a major user of nuclear energy. India gets most of its electricity from coal but is expanding into solar and wind.

Africa: South Africa gets most of its electricity from coal while North and East Africa utilize large hydropower projects. But sub-Saharan Africa still has the lowest electrification rates globally, presenting opportunities for further development.

South America: Brazil generates most of its electricity from hydropower, but also uses biomass, nuclear, and natural gas. Chile and parts of Mexico utilize geothermal while countries like Ecuador and Colombia harness hydro resources.

Australia: Australia is highly reliant on coal power but also utilizes substantial natural gas. Investments in solar and wind farms aim to transition away from fossil fuels over time.

Future Outlook

In the coming decades, we are likely to see major shifts in how the world generates power as countries move to decarbonize their energy systems. Renewable energy sources like solar and wind are expected to see massive growth, while fossil fuels like coal and natural gas will begin to decline.

Solar power is projected to grow dramatically in the next few decades. With solar panel costs plummeting and efficiency improving, solar is becoming cost-competitive with fossil fuels. Many experts predict solar will reach 20-50% of global power generation by 2050. Key markets driving this growth include China, India, Europe, and the United States.

Wind power is also expected to see rapid growth, potentially accounting for 15-30% of global electricity by 2050. Onshore wind is already mature and offshore wind farms are now being built at scale. Wind and solar have complementary generation profiles and could power 50% or more of grids when combined.

Countries around the world are moving to phase out coal power due to its high emissions. The EU, UK, and Canada plan to eliminate coal by 2030, while the U.S. and China are now cancelling over 100 gigawatts of planned coal plants. Coal is expected to plummet from 37% of global generation in 2015 to 9-13% by 2050.

Natural gas may act as a transition fuel due to its lower emissions versus coal. However, its long-term future is uncertain due to methane emissions concerns. Nuclear power provides steady baseload power but high costs and public opposition make large-scale growth unlikely.

The move to clean power brings challenges but also opportunities. It will require massive investments in grids and storage. It may enable sector coupling between power, transport, heating and more. With bold policies, technologies and business models, renewable energy can transform how the world is powered.

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