Electricity powers our world, but how much do we actually know about where it comes from? What energy resources are we using to fuel our society, and what do they mean for our environment? How can we ensure a sustainable future without sacrificing the technology and comforts of our modern world?
Energy Stats – Questions Answered
How Much Energy Do We Use?
Our energy use has been steadily increasing for decades due to our ever-growing population and technological advancements (all those cell phones need charging!). The graph below from the Global Energy Statistic Yearbook 2019 shows how worldwide energy consumption has increased over 50% in under 40 years.
China and the US have been the main parties responsible for increases in energy consumption. China has been undergoing a massive economic boom for the past couple decades and has required more and more energy for its industry and transportation sectors. In fact, China has been the world’s #1 consumer of energy since 2009.
Our consumption of fossil fuels has grown exponentially since the Industrial Revolution. According to Our World in Data, global consumption of fossil fuels has increased over six-fold since the 1950s.
Where Does Our Energy Come From?
Despite the recent ushering in of an era of renewable energy, three quarters of the world’s energy consumption is still from non-renewable sources (fossil fuels). In the US, just under 2/3 of energy produced in 2018 was fossil fuels which include petroleum, natural gas, and coal. The table below shows the official breakdown by energy source.
Renewable energy, however, is gaining steam due to decreased costs and increased efficiency, as well as the push from environmentalists concerned about our use of finite natural resources like coal. The graph below is from the US Department of Energy’s International Energy Outlook 2017 and shows the upward trend of renewables and natural gas (now being touted by the industry as a cleaner alternative to oils and coal, but it is still finite and harmful to our planet) as well as the slow decline of coal.
As far as energy production is concerned, five states (Maine, Rhode Island, Delaware, Idaho, and Hawaii) have already switched to 100% renewables. Oregon is just a tiny bit behind at 99.8%. This does not mean, however, they are consuming 100% renewables.
Worldwide, China and the US are the top two countries using renewable energy with China skyrocketing past all other countries with over twice the gigawatt-hours used compared to second place US. Below is a list of the top 15 countries using renewables from the World Atlas.
Where Are We Using Our Energy?
So now that we know just how much energy we are using and what sources it comes from, let’s look at where all that energy is being put to use. The US Energy Information Administration’s table below shows the breakdown of energy consumption by sector. The industrial and transportation sectors together are consistently consuming nearly 50% more energy than residential and commercial sectors.
The Global Energy Outlook also looked at energy use by sector, but combined residential and commercial into a “buildings” category. This graph below emphasizes how global industrial activities consume the lion’s share of energy and highlights the need for investment in and utilization of renewables.
With this knowledge, we will now take a deeper look at each of our main energy sources to learn more about their growth or decline, how they create electricity, and their respective environmental concerns.
Energy Sources – From Fossil Fuels To New Technologies
Although there are many more energy sources, this post will cover the most common: fossil fuels, nuclear, hydro, wind, and solar. This order mirrors the US breakdown of energy sources.
Fossil fuels are a large category containing fuels like oils, natural gas, coal, and other gases. These fuels are hydrocarbons formed in the earth’s crust from organic materials under pressure, which can be burned for heat or to power turbines to generate electricity. The rate of fossil fuel use has continued to increase despite environmental concerns and cheapening renewable energy sources.
While coal is the most abundant fossil fuel on earth, natural gas and petroleum have grown in popularity and overtook coal in the mid-1900s. Natural gas consumption has grown in recent years mainly due to China and US, and the US is the #1 producer of natural gas in the world. While burning coal and oil produces carbon dioxide, burning natural gas produces methane, a greenhouse gas 30 times worse than CO2.
Crude oil production increased 2% worldwide in 2018 and increased 16.5% in US alone. In that year, the US consumed 142.86 billion gallons of gas. Our World in Data has a ton of graphs breaking down our fossil fuel usage over the years and are definitely worth checking out.
There are many problems with using fossil fuels. As a finite resource, at some point we will entirely run out of these resources. The processes by which fossil fuels are extracted harm the environment. For instance, fracking not only using a lot of water which gets polluted with chemicals and seeps into the environment, but it also makes areas more susceptible to earthquakes and releases methane into the atmosphere. Fracking, rotary drilling, and directional drilling make it easier to extract hard-to-obtain deposits, meaning as resources become scarce, companies will begin to rely more heavily on these processes.
The burning of fossil fuels also releases greenhouse gases, both CO2 and methane. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, “[a]tmospheric CO2 concentrations fluctuated between 275 and 290 parts per million by volume (ppmv) of dry air between 1000 CE and the late 18th century but increased to 316 ppmv by 1959 and rose to 412 ppmv in 2018“. The Department of Energy has stated that in the past two decades, nearly 75% of all human-caused emissions are from burning fossil fuels.
Nuclear is a tricky subject. While technically a zero emissions and very reliable source of energy, it does have a waste problem that is currently not solved and exposing the environment to radiation is a big concern. Some people are for nuclear and others are heavily against it, but it is clear the general public has a large misunderstanding of what nuclear is and isn’t. Let’s take a look.
Nuclear power has existed for over 60 years. In the US, nuclear power makes up about 20% of our energy and 55% of carbon-free energy. Nuclear is a very reliable resource because unlike solar and wind farms, nuclear power plants can work 24/7. The Nuclear Energy Institute says “wind farms require 360 times more land area to produce the same amount of electricity and solar photovoltaic plants require 75 times more space“.
Currently three states get over 50% of their power from nuclear: South Carolina, New Hampshire, and Illinois. Nationwide there are 98 reactors, but some are closing (such as the Plymouth nuclear plant in Massachusetts which shut down last year).
Power is generated through nuclear fission. Nuclear fission is the process of splitting atoms of uranium. Uranium is surrounded by water, and the reactor causes the atoms split and release heat. This energy heats the water and creates the steam which powers turbines that generate electricity.
Contrary to popular belief, the “smoke” rising out of the iconic nuclear power plant towers is just that steam being released into the atmosphere. There are also no toxic barrels of glowing green goo. Nuclear waste is a super dense solid, and the entirety of the US’s nuclear waste from past 60 years could fit in a 10 foot deep football field.
A huge concern with nuclear power is the risk of radiation. Radioactive emissions can enter both the air and the water and pose a serious health concern. Although plants are designed such that radiation cannot reach someone outside the plant, nuclear power plants are required to check for radiation around a facility in soils and bodies of water for contamination. Despite these regulations, nuclear power plants are not required to give advance notification to the public when radioactive materials are transported from the plant.
Scientists agree the best solution for nuclear waste is to bury it. Because the US has yet to establish a permanent holding facility, nuclear waste is stored in multiple temporary facilities across the country. Despite Congress designating Yucca Mountain (100 miles outside of Las Vegas, Nevada) as the nation’s permanent nuclear waste holding facility way back in 1987, the facility has yet to be licensed and is still a contested solution to the nuclear waste problem.
Temporary facilities cost tax payers millions of dollars, but shipping all the 536 tons of waste to Yucca Mountain would be no easy task. It would take decades to transport everything by rail through the heart of Las Vegas to the facility, and some scientists worry the waste may contaminate groundwater of surrounding communities.
Hydropower is the oldest renewable energy source and is by far the most popular. While China uses over three times as much as the US, hydropower accounts for around 7% of energy produced in the US. Washington state, however, gets around 75% of its electricity just from hydropower. Hydropower can be split into two categories: traditional hydropower (dams) and new hydrokinetic power (tidal power technologies).
Traditional hydropower uses a dam or other diversion structure to harness the flow of water for electricity generation. The most iconic dam is the Hoover Dam on the border between Nevada and Arizona. Constructed as part of the Public Works Administration during the Great Depression, the Hoover Dam produces around 4 billion kWh per year, enough to serve 1.3 million people in the area.
Although hydropower itself doesn’t contribute to air pollution, chemical runoff, or toxic waste, the construction of dams can negatively affect the environment. Dams can prevent fish migration, slow river flow, trap materials like logs, stones, sediment, and heat water which can kill wildlife. Dams can also change the landscape upstream and downstream by causing upstream flooding, creating upstream reservoirs, and reducing downstream flow volume.
Hydrokinetic Energy Technologies
According to the Department of Energy, “[m]arine and hydrokinetic energy technologies convert the energy of waves, tides, and river and ocean currents into electricity“. Hydrokinetic technologies include machines that harness the up and down motion of waves to move a piston to power a turbine, overtopping devices where water breaks over a barrier and drains out at the bottom powering a turbine, or an underwater turbine harnessing the flow of water much like wind turbines harness the flow of air. Unfortunately, these technologies are still in an infancy stage and require lots of funding before being they are able to be applied on a larger scale.
Although wind is slightly behind hydropower in terms of production in the US, wind power has the largest capacity of all renewable resources (enough to power 25 million homes!). There are utility-scale wind farms in 41 states, and wind power distribution is in all 50 states and in the territories.
It is projected that wind will make up 10% of energy mix nationwide this year as coal drops to 23%. In fact, wind will actually beat out coal power in Texas. According to the Department of Energy, “[w]ind energy provides more than 10% of total electricity generation in 14 states, and more than 30% in Kansas, Iowa, and Oklahoma“.
In 2016, Rhode Island became the first state in the nation to build an offshore wind farm. With regards to my home state of Massachusetts, Governor Baker signed into law the requirement for a study for the “necessity, benefits, and costs” of offshore wind in Massachusetts by July 31, 2019. This study recommended and requires electricity distributors to solicit another 1,600 MW of offshore wind on top of the 1,600 MW of offshore wind authorized under The Act to Promote Energy Diversity in Massachusetts in 2016. Currently 45 towns have large-scale wind turbines in Massachusetts.
“The overall capacity of all wind turbines installed worldwide by the end of 2018 reached 597 Gigawatt.” There has been major recent growth in China, Brazil, and India as well as African markets. China’s capacity is over 200 GW, followed by the US (96 GW), Germany (59 GW), India (35 GW), and the UK (20.7 GW).
Although we may think of solar as something relatively new, the first photovoltaic solar cell was invented by Bell Laboratories back in 1954. Right away, NASA began using to power its satellites like Vanguard 1.
Solar is the most abundant energy resource on earth, and demand for solar power has increased over 23 times in just the past 8 years. The cost of a PV system in US has decreased nearly 60% in the past decade. Today there are over 2 million individual setups ranging from home roofs to utility-scale solar farms throughout the US which are enough to power over 13 million homes.
There are actually three main solar power technologies: photovoltaic (PV), solar heating and cooling (SHC), and concentrating solar power (CSP). Here is a quick breakdown:
- Photovoltaics: “Electrons in [semiconductors] are freed by solar energy and can be induced to travel through an electrical circuit, powering electrical devices or sending electricity to the grid.”
- Solar Heating and Cooling: “Solar heating & cooling (SHC) technologies collect the thermal energy from the sun and use this heat to provide hot water, space heating, cooling, and pool heating for residential, commercial, and industrial applications.”
- Concentrating Solar Power: “Concentrating solar power (CSP) plants use mirrors to concentrate the sun’s energy to drive traditional steam turbines or engines that create electricity.”
Energy Use Tips – Doing Your Part To Conserve Resources
So what can you do to conserve energy and reduce your dependence on fossil fuels? Let’s look at some behavioral changes, product replacements, and activism to get you started.
In 2010, 72 percent of the energy used in the average US household went to water heating and space heating and cooling. To reduce this energy, we need to step a little outside our comfort zones.
- Take shorter showers
- Take cooler showers
- Wash laundry on cold or warm
- Wash dishes in cooler water
- Wear more clothes and blankets in the winter instead of turning the heat up
- Open the windows at night in summer to cool the house
- Use curtains to block the sun in the summer and keep out the cold air in the winter
- Use fans over A/C
- Spend time in the basement during the summers
- Use draft stoppers under doors and around windows in winter
- Have friends over in winter to warm up the house
In addition to heating and cooling tips, here are some other energy savings behaviors.
- Turn off DVR box and other appliances that suck energy when sitting idle
- Turn off lights when not needed and use natural lighting when you can
- Schedule your day around sunlight hours
- Switch your energy provider to one that uses renewable energy
- Place electronics in power save mode
- Dim the brightness on your phone and don’t leave Bluetooth on
- Buy local to reduce the energy for transportation of that item
- Drive less and bundle shopping trips into a multi-stop loop
- Take the stairs over taking the elevator when you can manage a couple flights of stairs
- Find low-energy hobbies like knitting, reading, or exercising to replace things like video game and watching TV
- Take vacations closer to home or choose to have a stay-cation
More behavioral changes and other tips for reducing energy waste and physical waste can be found here!
Items are becoming more energy efficient every year so when it comes time to replace an item, do your research to find the best one for your budget.
- Opt for Energy Star-rated products (stove/oven, refrigerators, microwaves, laptops, etc.) and WaterSense fixtures (shower heads, toilets, faucets)
- Line dry the laundry
- Look for products that can multitask (e.g. a video game console can also be a DVD player, some blenders have a food processor attachment)
- Don’t replace items you don’t really use once they eventually break
- Buy rechargeable batteries
- Use a solar-powered cellphone charger
Getting involved in your community and in politics can help spur larger change beyond your household use.
- Write to companies to encourage better energy use practices
- Vote in local, regional, and national elections
- Write your politicians to provide your opinion on energy
- Join an organization like Sierra Club
- Join a climate protest
With a growing global population and the rise of technology, our demand for energy will continue to increase. Our best bet is to source our energy from renewables and use it efficiently.
What other ways can we reduce our dependence on electricity and energy? What surprised you the most about our energy use? Let me know in the comments!