The climate mitigation opportunity behind global power transmission and distribution

Abstract

Inefficient transmission and distribution (T&D) infrastructure that results in losses as electricity travels from supplier to customer contributes to compensatory power generation and therefore to unanticipated GHG emissions. Pilferage, poor planning and management in the T&D system also contribute to losses that can increase total electricity generation. Because the combination of electricity generation, combined heat and power generation and heat plants account for over 40% of global GHG emissions1, mitigation efforts tend to focus on electricity generated rather than delivered. We combine life cycle assessments of power generation with uncertainty analysis to bound potential emissions from compensatory generation from T&D aggregate losses (that is, technical and non-technical) in 142 countries. We estimate that electricity generated due to losses from T&D infrastructure is associated with nearly 1 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents per year (GtCO2e yr–1). Our global average estimates for potential emissions reductions that may be achieved by improvements in technical losses and aggregate losses are 411 and 544 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents per year (MtCO2e yr–1), respectively. By reducing T&D losses, not only may compensatory emissions be reduced, but more electricity from low-carbon power-plant investments may reach the intended consumers.

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Fig. 1: Emissions from electricity generation by countries included in this analysis as a function of total T&D losses in 2016.
Fig. 2: Average potential reductions in compensatory emissions from reduction in technical T&D losses, by country.
Fig. 3: Average potential reductions in compensatory emissions from reduction in aggregate T&D losses (that is, both technical and non-technical T&D losses), by country.
Fig. 4: Estimated compensatory emissions under three power generation scenarios.

Data availability

The data supporting the findings of this study are available within the article and its supplementary information files. All remaining data are publicly available by the referenced source and available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

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Acknowledgements

We are grateful for feedback from B. Hobbs on an early version of this paper and for comments from J. Huenteler. V. Specioso, a graduate student at the School for Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University, provided research support for the literature review and data collection.

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K.S. and S.M.J. contributed equally to the paper. Both designed the research, compiled and analysed the data, reviewed literature and wrote the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Sarah M. Jordaan.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information: Nature Climate Change thanks Maryam Arbabzadeh, Anders Arvesen, Constantine Samaras and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Tables 1–5, Figs. 1–4 and references.

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Supplementary Data 1

Monte Carlo Simulation: input and output distributions.

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Surana, K., Jordaan, S.M. The climate mitigation opportunity behind global power transmission and distribution. Nat. Clim. Chang. 9, 660–665 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-019-0544-3

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