China Passes U.S. as World's Biggest Energy Consumer


SPENCER SWARTZ

China is now the world’s biggest energy consumer, knocking the U.S. off a perch it held for more than a century, according to new data from the International Energy Agency.

The Paris-based agency, whose forecasts are generally regarded as bellwether indicators for the energy industry, said China devoured 2,252 million tons of oil equivalent last year, or about 4% more than the U.S., which burned through 2,170 million tons of oil equivalent. The oil-equivalent metric represents all forms of energy consumed, including crude oil, nuclear, coal, natural gas and renewable sources such as hydropower.

The figures reflect, in part, how the global recession hit the U.S. more severely than China and hurt American industrial activity and energy use. Still, China’s total energy consumption has clocked annual double-digit growth rates for many years, driven by the country’s big industrial base. Highlighting how quickly its energy demand has increased, China’s total energy consumption was just half the size of the U.S. 10 years ago.

[chinaoil] AFP/Getty ImagesA petrol station worker prepares to fill up a car in Hong Kong.

“The fact that China overtook the U.S. as the world’s largest energy consumer symbolizes the start of a new age in the history of energy,” IEA chief economist Fatih Birol said in an interview. The U.S. had been the biggest overall energy consumer since the early 1900s, he said. The IEA is an energy adviser to most of the world’s biggest economies.

China’s voracious energy demand helps explain why the country—which gets most of its electricity from coal, the dirtiest of fossil-fuel resources—passed the U.S. in 2007 as the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gases.

The U.S. is still by far the biggest energy consumer per capita, with the average American burning five times as much energy annually as the average Chinese citizen, said Mr. Birol, who has been in his current role for six years.

The U.S. also is the biggest oil consumer by a wide margin, going through on average roughly 19 million barrels a day—with China at a distant second at about 9.2 million barrels a day. But many oil analysts believe U.S. crude demand has peaked or is unlikely to grow very much in coming years because of improved energy efficiency and more-stringent vehicle fuel-efficiency regulations.

Prior to the recession, China had been expected to become the biggest energy consumer in about five years, but the economic malaise and energy-efficiency programs in the U.S. brought forward the date of that superlative, Mr. Birol said.

The decreased energy “intensity” of the U.S. economy is a key reason investors, such as General Electric Co., have increasingly looked to China as a driver of future growth. Mr. Birol said China requires total energy investments of some $4 trillion over the next 20 years to keep feeding its economy and to avoid power blackouts and fuel shortages.

Mr. Birol, previously an economist at the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, said China is expected to build over the next 15 years some 1,000 gigawatts of new power-generation capacity. That is about the total amount of electricity-generation capacity in the U.S. currently, and the construction of all those gigawatts occurred over several decades. “This demonstrates the major growth we are talking about” in energy demand and capacity growth in China, Mr. Birol said.

Write to Spencer Swartz at spencer.swartz@wsj.com

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