Volume 6, Number 1, Fall 2005

The Modern Electric Power Industry and Global Sustainable Development


Peter Mark Jansson, Ph.D. PP PE

Electrical and Computer Engineering

Rowan University

Glassboro, NJ, U.S.A.



Victor E. Udo, Ph.D.

Manager, Business Planning and Research

Utility Operations and Services

Pepco Holdings Inc.

Newark, DE, U.S.A.






This paper explores key roles that the modern electric utility industry plays in paths toward global sustainable development. It is widely believed that a key contributor to global climate change is the continued growth of the global economy and commensurate increased consumption of fossil fuels. A key facilitator of this consumption and the key infrastructure for the economic expansion of nations is the electricity grid. While it is known that this system has an overall energy conversion efficiency of less than 30%, alternatives remain less cost-effective or lack technological readiness for the reliability required by such an important global infrastructure. Our research suggests that nations, which are ranked high on SD, tend to have higher usage of renewable energy.  The key factors involved in achieving sustainable electricity production are described in the paper.  Public policy paths for shaping a more sustainable future for electric power are outlined.


 The electric power grid represents one of the world's most critical infrastructures supporting the social, technological, and economic development of modern societies.1, 2  In recent years, significant climate change research has correlated advancing global industrialization and its associated increase in energy usage with observable changes in global carbon dioxide levels. 3-7  According to the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), this and other energy related environmental challenges (i.e. resource depletion, nuclear proliferation, waste and hazardous air, water, and land emissions) demand the exploration of alternative roadmaps toward sustainability for the electric power industry.8 The need to shift to more sustainable modes of electric generation, while not presently economically pressing, represents our largest present-day presumptive anomaly* 9-10 and thus the question of what should be the role of the electric power industry in reinforcing global sustainable development (SD) in the 21st century. However, there is no generally accepted definition of SD.11 This paper suggests a holistic and quantifiable definition of SD and uses it to explore the pattern of SD and electrical/ electronic infrastructure (E-Infrastructure) management capacity in over 130 nations. Our research suggests that nations, which are ranked high on SD, tend to have higher usage of renewable energy. Building on this finding, the paper reviews some of the key factors and requirements for sustainable electricity production. 


The paper posits that electric power presumptive anomaly can provide a basis for the significant transition towards global sustainable development. Such transition, it is further argued, requires local to global public policy leadership11 and paradigmatic changes in electric utility engineering and business management. A summary of the technology readiness of the most environmentally and economically sustainable electric generation options is provided.  The most significant contribution of this work is its integration of the many technology, policy, standard, and economic factors to build multiple feasible pathways toward sustainable electricity production, bridging the chasm which now exists between desirable long-term environmental futures for society and present utility investment strategies driven by the short-term pressures of least-cost competition in deregulated markets.  These strategies include economic rationalization, incorporation of values for natural capital, 12-14 purposeful technology,15 life cycle assessment for portfolio expansion,16 market/customer-driven green pricing, and international electricity valuation based upon carbon-exchange. While each of these strategies represents a significant departure from present laissez faire policies in capitalist society, they promise a more realistic energy price signal, significant longer-term consumer and environmental benefits, and increased employment in the electricity industry.

Global Sustainable Development

The global sustainability problem as driven by contemporary culture can be viewed in a holistic perspective as a complex interrelationship of society, technology, and the environment. This problem seems to require new public policy praxis even as the underlying hegemonic structures in the global system are to be questioned for emancipation purposes.  In this context, technology shaped by humans that in turn shapes humans 17,18 should be seen as a tool for humans to minimize scarcity, not necessarily as an autonomous or autocratic phenomenon.19,20 Inappropriate use of technology can also be seen as a contributor to environmental depletion and pollution, mass destruction in terms of war, and a moral dilemma in terms of human cloning.  Sustainability therefore calls for a balanced relation of technology, society, and the environment with a focus on replenishing the earth.  Otherwise, there may be neither earth nor humans in the long term.21-24  This technology-society-environment relationship is very complex, thus requiring significant abstraction for basic understanding. A good public policy goal must be one that will ensure maximum total benefit to the majority and minimum total cost (including production, delivery, and environmental impact) to all. Solving the complex problems associated with achieving SD is made more difficult since definitions of what “sustainable” means abound. More so, key variables for measuring SD are interconnected and therefore very difficult to represent with traditional engineering and mathematical models.

Adaptive Coupling of SD Variables and Drivers


Complexity theory-based exploration was preferred instead of reductionistic cause and effect econometric modeling due to the very high interconnectedness of technology-society-environment variables that represent SD. SD variables and drivers are assumed adaptively coupled. Take the electrical/electronic infrastructure (E-Infrastructure) for example: electric energy is needed to power personal computers for internet access which also require telecommunication facility like the phone line which are advertised on radio and TV. Land and/or air transportation, on the other hand, is needed for radio and TV sets. Delivery is to the end-users who can only afford to buy and use them if they have the income and freedom to do so. It will be very difficult to perform causes and effects statistical analysis – especially since it is impossible to “hold all other things constant” in the real world of SD praxis. In complexity theory, complex adaptive system allows for pattern exploration including amplification of differences and self-similarity among the unit of analysis (nations I ? our study). Interrelatedness and interconnectedness of variables where a change in one affects the others in more like a feedback loop is what we define as adaptive coupling in this paper where we use indexing and percentage scale to rank and compare nations for SD assessment.


Defining Sustainable Development

Much sustainability literature tends to focus on environmental sustainability; 25, 26 this work adopts a more holistic definition that includes social and technological variables as well.  Therefore, sustainable development is herein defined as a pattern of social, technological, and environmental progress that can enable intergenerational and intragenerational equity based on good governance and infrastructure management. The sustainable development capacity of a nation is measured as a relative performance score on aggregated social, technological, and environmental variables.  Thus, later in the paper when nations are compared with one another, sustainable development capacity is explored as a survival and progress measure through three indicators: (a) the social sustainability capacity indicator, (b) the technological sustainability capacity indicator, and (c) the environmental sustainability capacity indicator.  To explore sustainable development as the capacity for human organizational systems in a polity to survive and progress, several adaptively coupled human survival and progress input, output, and impact variables are therefore selected and aggregated such that:

Sustainability development capacity ó AC{social, technological, environmental capacities}

where the above three indicators are assumed to be adaptively coupled (AC) such that    

Social ó  Technological  ó Environmental ó  Social


and each capacity indicator is an adaptive coupling of various attributes such that


Social sustainability     ó AC{global human rights, human transparency, human development, human survival, income equity, and human freedom attributes}


Technological sustainability ó  AC{renewable energy, energy efficiency, industrial balance, research and development assets, basic human sustenance, and disaster management attributes}


Environmental sustainability ó  AC{clean air, water usage, land preservation, ecology protection, resource usage, and sanitary health attributes}


and each attribute was  represented by either a single or multiple variables and quantified as discussed below.

Quantification of SD Among Nations

To quantify the above conceptual representation of SD, 132 nations were ranked using a cross-sectional comparative study with secondary data available as of September 2001. The inclusion of nations in the research sample was based on the availability of sufficient data and a population size of approximately 1.5 million people or more. These 132 nations represent over 95% of the world’s total population as of 1999.  They also represent about 93% of the total surface area of the world and a total of about $28.2 trillion in GNP (96% of the global total as of 1999) and about $29.5 trillion in GDP, (97% of the global GDP total as of 1999).  In essence, this research sample is a good representation of the contemporary global system with nations as the constituent units.  As a basis for our analysis, we assumed that a high score in E-infrastructure management capacity facilitates high sustainable development capacity, although the former is not necessarily a sufficient condition for the latter.  To test this assumption, several society, technology and environment data reported for both the private and public sectors of each nation in the research sample were aggregated as indexes of several variables and attributes defined as adaptive coupling. We assume that index and scales are efficient devices for data analysis since the consideration of a single data results in a rough indicator while several items provide a more comprehensive and accurate indicator of the concept studied. This type of aggregation is an efficient device for representing complex data because such aggregation makes it possible to convert several indicators into a single numerical score. The major sources of secondary data used for this purpose included Human Development 2000 Report, World Development 2000/2001 Report, Environmental Sustainability Index 2001 Report, Economic Freedom Index 2001 Report, and The CIA 2001 World Fact Book. Using data from these sources, each nation was given a relative performance score on the attributes. The attributes were then aggregated into indicators and overall capacity index for the nations to be ranked accordingly. An example of the pattern observed is summarized below with more details in.11

E-Infrastructure Management

For the purpose of our research and to assure consistency with the SD capacity conceptualization,  E‑infrastructure management (EIM) capacity was explored in terms of three interrelated indicators: public communication/ mobility, energy/power, and transactional/ telecommunication as shown below:


E-Infrastructure Management Capacity ó  AC{public communication/mobility, energy/power, and transactional infrastructure capacities indicators}


where the three E-infrastructure capacity indicators are assumed to be adaptively coupled, and each indicator is an adaptive coupling of various attributes such that:


Public Communication/Mobility  ó AC{Land and air transportation, radio and  TV diffusion attributes}


Energy/Power Indicator       ó  AC{Electric growth, electric penetration, electric efficiency, and productive utilization attributes}


Transactional/Telecommunication        ó AC{Fixed phone, personal computer,  mobile phone, and Internet access

Similar rational and secondary data sources used for the quantification of SD capacity were also used to quantify E-infrastructure capacity of the 132 nations in our research sample. See11 for more detailed discussion, results and analysis.  For the purpose of this paper, our focus is on the energy/power aspect of EIM as the most critical system in which the notion of presumptive anomaly seems most applicable when viewed in the context of global sustainable development as will be discussed.


SD and EIM Capacity of Nations

A summary of the ranking results is shown in Table 1 for the top 30 ranked nations as compared with other independent rankings of nations on similar but not exact variables.

                                            Table 1 - Comparison Ranking Results with Other Studies


The two independent studies were World Competitiveness Yearbook Infrastructure ranking of 49 countries in 2001 (WCY) and Sustainable Development Index ranking of 146 nations in the 2001 State of the Future (SOF). There was 90% agreement with the SD and 70% with the EIM rankings directionally.  This relatively high level of agreement suggested the reasonability of the ranking processes.  Data synchronization and conceptualization approaches were the primary cause of the differences.  Please see11 for the rest of the rankings and more detailed discussions.  To explore the patterns of EIM and SD capacity, each nation was given a relative performance quality of low, medium and high.  For a nation to obtain a high performance quality rating, they must score in the top 90th percentile of the measure, the 55th percentile represented a low performance quality rating, and a medium performance quality rating was represented by rankings between the 85th and 60th percentiles.  Using these high, medium, and low evaluations, each national polity in the research sample was placed on the performance quadrant of a two‑dimensional matrix.11 An interesting observation from the research is that most nations that are ranked low on sustainable development are also ranked low on E‑infrastructure management, thus suggesting that at least both performance indexes are coupled based upon similar drivers. Also, it seems that good infrastructure management (at least as defined in this study) is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for sustainable development. 


The results of SD analysis of 132 nations show that of a possible score of 1800, only 20 nations achieved a score above 1300 (72%).  The United States was just below this cutoff with a score of 1282 (70.5%) while the average score was 998, and the lowest just 170. A similar analysis of the EIM had the United States ranking second with a score of 862 of a possible 1200 while Norway, the top ranked nation, had a score of 871. The average performance on EIM ranking was 446 while the lowest was a mere 49. The energy/power (E/P) component of EIM is the primary focus of this paper. For this component, the United States was ranked number 5 with a score of 254 out of a possible 400 compared with the top ranked Norway with a score of 275. The average E/P score was 163. Table 2 provides a summary of the top 20 performers on SD along with their rankings on EIM, E/P, and the percent of total energy usage that is from renewable as compared with USA – the largest user of electrical energy among nations.


                                       Table 2 - Top 20 Nations’ SD Indexes and Renewable Energy vs. U.S.


An interesting finding from this analysis was the observation that the highest performers overall in the SD Index also had relatively high levels of renewable energy usage in general – adjusting for statistical factors. Given the above discussion and analysis, a fair and reasonable question becomes, “What should be the role of the electric power industry in global sustainable development?”


To answer this question, we review the electric power industry as technological infrastructure in transition and how it may be vulnerable to presumptive anomaly. Some of the key factors and requirements for sustainable electricity production that we reviewed include 


·        Technology Efficiency/Readiness - Life-cycle resource utilization efficiency justifying investment

·        Technology Economics - Cost competitive renewable, sustainable fuel, hardware options and long-term ROI

·        Manufacturing Capacity - Production and delivery infrastructures adequate to meet global demand

·        Consumer Demand/Market Adoption - Increased local, regional and international market demand

·        Ecological Footprints - Standardization and agreement on ecological impacts of all technologies, ISO14000

·        Global Environmental Accords - UNEP, IPCC, (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), Kyoto Protocol

·        International Competition - local resources, global technology, national development, ecological tariffs


The Power Grid in Transition

World installed electrical capacity at the end of the 20th century was slightly over 3 billion kilowatts, of which 21.5% was from a renewable source (hydropower).10 Nearly 4/5ths of the world's production was from fossil fuel or nuclear sources.  Since the greater portion of this generation includes use of a steam turbine/generator, the overall thermodynamic efficiency of the fuel to electric conversion cycle averaged 32% or lower.  When losses associated with the power delivery grids are included, the effect is that for each Btu of primary fuel used by society, less than 0.3 Btu of electricity reaches the end-user. This inefficiency is magnified again significantly when one considers the typically low overall end-use efficiency of most modern appliances and devices that use the electricity once it arrives at the customer location. To put this in a macro perspective, if end-use devices are on average 35% efficient in performing their intended purposes (which would be considered quite high since refrigeration systems, for example, are typically 14% efficient - compressor-evaporator-condenser cycle16), then present global installed electric generators and power delivery networks (which are more than triple that capacity) consume 90% of their fuel just to serve system losses.

Efficiency (Fuel à Electricity): 32%      (1)

Efficiency (Power Grid Delivery): 90%     (2)

Efficiency (End-Use Device): 35%     (3)

Net Overall System Efficiency (Fuel à Use): 32%x90%x35%=   10.08%   (4)

Overall, this level of system (including average utilization) efficiency is not admirable. Continued expansion of such an inefficient central electric power infrastructure to serve inefficient end-use devices clearly does not represent a sustainable long-term future for the industry.  It is for these reasons that EPRI is exploring alternative roadmaps toward sustainability for the electric power industry,8 and adoption of the renewable energy portfolio is under serious consideration by 15 states in the US.

Efficiency vs. Sustainability

While efficiency is an important engineering concept and is well discussed and documented in the literature of electricity producing technologies, in itself, it is an insufficient measure in representing the overall sustainability of a technology option. When comparing the benefits of competing technologies, it has typically been desirable to discuss their overall efficiency. In this paper, we suggest that this can be misleading. For example, if one were to compare the fuel to electric conversion efficiencies of two competing technologies, an efficiency comparison is valid, since it represents a clear relationship between the relative environmental impacts of the competitors (at least in terms of their resource utilization).  However, it may not be an adequate comparison with respect to their air or water emissions, solid waste generation, etc.  The use of efficiency values when comparing fuel to electricity conversion technologies (fossil, nuclear, etc.) with other renewable energy options (wind, photovoltaic, solar thermal to electric, etc.) becomes even more distorted since the overall efficiencies of conversion for the nascent renewable technologies may be very low compared with their fossil competitors.  Specifically, the success rate (efficiency) with which the renewable energy based technology option is able to convert the abundant, replenishable natural energy resource to electricity is irrelevant for a sustainability comparison.  The impact on natural resource depletion (and often emissions of all types as well) is so small for the renewable energy based system that its sustainability benefits far outweigh the minor conversion efficiency benefits that might exist for the fossil or nuclear-based alternatives.  Table 3 summarizes the present day efficiency ranges for electricity producing technologies.










                                          Table 3 -Efficiencies of Electricity Producing Technologies

* - NOTE: These values include credit for the use of waste heat in the commercial process of the end-users

Economics vs. Sustainability

The overall economics of each electricity generating technology is actually a present snapshot of the value society currently places on capital. This singular value (cents/kWh) is a measure of how much it currently costs to generate a specific unit of energy (kWh) for each device assuming that the value of natural capital is free.









                                          Table 4 - Costs of Electricity Producing Technologies


* - NOTE: These lower values can be achieved in New Jersey due to the benefits of the New Jersey Clean Energy Program.27

What is meant by that is there are no benefits associated with technologies that do not utilize, deplete or exhaust finite natural resources (such as fossil fuels), nor are there any penalties placed on technologies that require the use of natural resources such as the buffering capacity of the oceans to absorb any undesirable air or water emissions. Table 4 indicates that there is a significant gap between renewable energy technologies such as photovoltaic and wind energy when compared to the present costs of electricity from the U.S. grid.  In New Jersey, rebates exist for investments in wind and photovoltaic systems that bring the economic costs significantly closer to competitive rates, but a large premium still must be paid in most states of the US for more sustainable electricity technologies.  This disparity is known and associated with the fact that most renewable technologies are relatively new, have poor delivery and service infrastructures, and are more costly overall to manufacture, market, install, operate, and maintain at acceptable quality of service level.  While it is believed by some experts that costs will become more competitive as mass production occurs for these technologies, other researchers believe that photovoltaic systems will never become economically competitive in grid connected applications.28 

The role that public policy driven incentives can play to bring the more sustainable alternatives into the marketplace has been well discussed and debated.   The near term benefits of increased market demand are offset by the fact that fundamentally the true economic picture has been temporarily altered while rebates exist and demand falls off when the rebates are removed.  This leads to unsustainable market dynamics, and fluctuations in demand may mask presumptive anomaly in the electric power industry.

Presumptive Anomaly

Historically, technological evolution has followed many diverse paths driven by need and opportunity.29 Earlier in this paper, we presented the concept of presumptive anomaly, which also has been a historic driver of technologic change.  Very often, innovation occurs by necessity when scientists or engineers perceive that the present system is reaching the limits of its usefulness or may be about ready to fail based upon their understanding of changing technical, social, economic, environmental and/or political milieus. The conventional system for generating electric power globally has not yet failed in any absolute or objective sense, but observations (such as climate change data) that have been derived from science indicate that conventional, inefficient, grid-based electric power systems will fail to meet the burgeoning global demand for electricity without dramatic environmental consequences (resource depletion, air/water emissions, solid waste production, etc.) which society appears unwilling to accept. From a practical engineering perspective, we have reached an impasse.  Electric utilities are motivated by investors and regulators to provide the lowest costs to consumers and the highest financial performance; the existing technologies are 27-30% efficient and provide a host of environmental impacts.  

A sustainable path for electric power may range from 10-46% efficient but may cost two to three times as much for consumers as the current technologies and potentially lower returns for shareholders. As engineers and educators of engineers, we cannot simply change the way things are done overnight. The process of change is complex and involves many parties. In the case of introducing new electricity technologies to the power grids of the world, the change will be very gradual.  Significant intervention on the part of policy makers created models such as those adopted in Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands, or Germany. These systems are focused more toward sustainable electricity production. Radical changes in the system, such as these, will not be created by industry and/or consumers working alone. According to a recent expert DOE paper posted in May 2003 on the Energy Information Administration's website, "Renewable energy sources are not expected to compete economically with fossil fuels in the mid-term forecast. In the absence of significant government policies aimed at reducing the impacts of carbon-emitting energy sources on the environment, it will be difficult to extend the use of renewables on a large scale."30 

Potential Transitional Paths

How then are we to achieve the solution to our engineering problem?  We have identified the complex nature of this problem, and its solution will be multi-faceted. There is a broad array of potential paths; our research has indicated that they all include significant public policy intervention. Public policy intervention will be required to successfully navigate along any or all of the following potential paths towards a sustiable electrical power infrastructure.


            Economic Rationalization


Engineers, scientists, and policy makers must jointly develop agreed upon means by which the true costs of the global environmental resources can be incorporated into the products and services we produce in society, beginning specifically and primarily with energy services and electricity. Natural capital 12-14 can no longer be a free service provided by the global environment available to whoever is capable of exploiting the resource first.


            Increasing Consumer/Market Demand


In order to accelerate the demand for more sustainable electricity options, an extensive effort on the part of all energy and electricity providers to increase the local, regional, and international market demand for green power and renewable energy investments must be undertaken. This will accelerate the market pull for renewable technologies and provide the required incentive for significant new investments in production capacity by the investment and financial community.


            Ecological Footprint Standardization


Already today there are more than adequate standards that could be adopted by all nations for the agreed upon method for determining the ecological footprints of all existing and identified renewable and non-renewable electricity generation technologies. Agreement on ecological impacts of all electrical power generation and delivery technologies using ISO14000 as well as complete life cycle assessments16 for all electric power portfolio expansion plans could quickly be accomplished with a joint agreement among energy providers and national governments. This would lead to honest and consistent record keeping across the globe with respect to contributions to emissions, waste, and resource depletion for every kilowatt-hour generated.


            Global Environmental Policy Accords


The important role of global public policy initiatives and environmental accords such as those developed by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), such as the Kyoto Protocol, cannot be overstated.  The cooperative work of many nations and the scientists of many countries have led to the identification of this pressing environmental concern and the request for immediate policy action on the part of every nation state. It is imperative that all sovereign states realize that the planet is home to many countries other than themselves and that the global stewardship and environmental responsibility must be a key responsibility of every government and head of state. A next step for reduction in CO2 emissions may be the development of an international electricity valuation that is based upon carbon-exchange calculations or other LCA acceptable under ISO14000.


            National Independence/Global Competitiveness


As international competition heats up and the market becomes increasingly global, each nation must begin to determine for themselves what competitive advantage they will bring to the new competitive arena. Some nations have apparently chosen to differentiate themselves by using their federal governments to support renewable energy industries within the country that can achieve more national energy independence and economic development while simultaneously building new technologies for export (Japan - PV, Denmark - wind, Germany - PV, etc.).  This can cascade to local government entities also driving the nation to become more energy efficient and local resource based by their procurement strategies to only buy from local, sustainable (ISO14000 or EMAS certified) suppliers, thereby growing close to home-sustainable production capacity. It is not a large step from there to begin seeing the development of ecological tariffs which will limit the importation of cheap competitor products that are not as beneficial for the environment or local /regional economy. As each nation carefully considers how it will develop its own manufacturing capacity for renewable electricity production and the delivery infrastructures adequate to meet its needs, it may also see ways in which leveraging new expertise can assist in meeting the growing global demand for electric power.


This short paper has presented some of the key challenges that those of us in the electric power industry face as we seek pathways toward a more sustainable future for electricity. The current constraints we face make it presently not possible to economically achieve sustainability for our industry overall at the present time. In the foreseeable future, our industry will become increasingly unsustainable without the thoughtful intervention of public policy and plans that support a migration away from fossil-fuel based generation. The pathways toward a more sustainable electricity future will include increasing consumer demand for green power, incorporation of environmental externalities into free market economics, standardizing engineering design based on ISO14000, strong public policy action on environmental accords, and increasing global competition with national governments taking a strong role in developing their individual strategic competitive advantages based upon renewable electricity technology development.  Engineers will continue to play an important role in the development of efficient new renewable technologies and assisting business, industry and government in its rapid implementation.


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* Presumptive anomaly occurs in technology, not when the conventional system fails in any absolute or objective sense, but when assumptions derived from science indicate that either under some future conditions the conventional system will fail (or function badly) or that a radically different system will do a better job.