Waste is how we “do” energy

Lawrence Livermore Laboratory released it’s 2011 energy usage flow chart graphic… And it is amazing. It looks overwhelmingly complicated at first, but once you have looked at it for a while and figured out what the image is portraying it is very easy to read.  To see a full sized version of the chart click here.  To find previous years charts you can click here.

And it is eye opening.

This chart  compares all of the energy sources that we used in America in 2011. The way  they can make this type of a comparison chart between energy types is by coming up with comparative quantities of energy. The chart shows that we used 97 “Quads” of energy over the whole year. This is for electricity, for heating, for transportation, … basically everything.

1 Quad of energy represents:

One quadrillion BTU’s of heat (10 to the 15th power)
8,007,000,000 – Gallons (US) of gasoline
293,083,000,000 – Kilowatt-hours of electricity (kWh)
36,000,000 – Tonnes of coal
970,434,000,000 – Cubic feet of natural gas
25,200,000 – Tonnes of oil

The left side of the graphic shows all of the fuel sources from which we get our energy and how much energy we get from each source. Comparing the different fuel sources we can see that even though solar energy production has been increasing by over 100% a year for the past 5 years it is still almost insignificant in the big picture. It is almost a rounding error when compared to other energy sources. There is nowhere to go but up with solar, wind and geothermal energy. The largest truly “renewable” energy source that we use is hydro at about 3% of the total, and “biomass” which produces about 4% of the energy in the USA. Biomass is basically burning wood, chips, waste, refuse etc. So… it is technically renewable, but certainly it is the “dirtiest” of the renewable energy sources.

The center of the graphic shows where that produced energy gets used. A large portion of that energy goes to produce electricity. Other energy goes towards mechanical uses, for heating purposes, and for transportation. The center right of the graphic splits out the end uses of electricity between Residential, commercial, industrial, and transportation usage.

The far right of the graphic shows how much energy gets “rejected” or “wasted” versus how much energy actually goes towards “useful purposes.” The numbers on the left (energy production) exactly equal the numbers on the right (energy usage).

A fascinating graphic no doubt. The deeper one looks the more interesting it becomes.

Now let’s talk about the elephant in the living room… Notice the top section of the graphic dedicated to the electricity generation. There are 39.2 quads of energy invested (from all sources combined). As we follow the usage of electricity we see that combining everything together there are only 12 quads eventually used. Now this is unbelievable. The delivered energy is only 32% of the produced energy. In other words apporximately 68% of the energy is wasted BEFORE it gets to your meter.

This is not something that you can fix on your end by being more efficient in your house and burning CFL’s or LED light bulbs. Turning down your thermostat won’t change these numbers by one iota. Efficiency measures inside your house may help save YOU money, but it won’t change the energy being wasted before it gets to your house. This is energy that is simply lost or wasted on the way to your meter.

What is happening here? Where is all that energy going?

Digging into the charts and reports upon which the graphic is based gives some insight. We find that about 7-8% of the energy is lost to “line losses” or transmission inefficiencies. In other words, the electricity leaks out of the lines. We have a “leaky grid” wasting electricity. There seems to be another 5% of electricity that is used inside the actual power generation plant itself that is counted in this wasted energy.

The primary waste of energy comes from the way that we generate electricity. The electrical generation plants (ie coal generators) are notoriously inefficient. Many are over 50 years old and it is common knowledge that changing coal into electricity wastes massive amounts of heat. Almost 70% of the energy input into a coal generation plant doesn’t come out the other end as useful electricity. It normally dissapates as “wasted heat” and is completely lost.

Because of this huge inefficiency in coal generation plants, many new generation plants are being designed and built as “Co-generation” plants. They take that “wasted” energy and put it to a useful purpose. For instance, if a co-generation plant is located near an industrial park, then the extra heat can be used for heating the water and or the buildings (in the winter) in that industrial park. The heat can be used rather than wasted. Some of these  CHP (combined heat and power ) co-generation plants can be up to 70% efficient (rather than the current 30% efficiency average).   See a report on the efficiency of CHP plants here.

CHP Energy Report here.  Co-generation is a good start, but many of the coal power plants in the country are already paid for, so the utilities believe that it makes sense to run them for just “one more year.” The extra energy they produce is all “profit” for the utility. These old plants should be retired, but they are so much cheaper to run than to build a new power plant (up to the current environmental standards). It’s better to keep on running the old dogs than to upgrade the power plants (which would make them more efficient and generate much less pollution).

This level of wastefullness is staggering.

This scale of wastefulness reminds me of the story of early western explorers who came upon “oceans” of buffalo. They would shoot the buffalo until they were out of ammo and just leave the carcasses in the field. I recently read “The Oregon Trail” by Francis Parkman, and they talked about going out to shoot the buffalo and killing as many “old bulls” as possible (because they were cranky and protective of the female buffalo). Though buffalo weighed in the thousands of pounds, they would shoot a good female buffalo and then take only 20 pounds of the choicest meat.   You can see the mountain of buffalo skulls in the photo.

All around us we can see destruction by people who never bothered to conserve. What is the point of conserving or being “sustainable” in a land with such obvious “overproduction” and “abundance?” This mindset is one of taking and has led to the logging of the sequoia’s, the clear cutting of the East coast and the Midwest (and the West for that matter).  South American’s rain forest is next. Why conserve and be efficient when we don’t have too with the obvious abundance all around us just ready for our (use/abuse)?

Mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia is the current way to exploit the natural resources (to make it cheaper to mine the coal).    This practice pollutes streams, levels the  mountains, kills watersheds and destroys communities.   The latest “efficient” way to collect coal.   Remember,   If we had efficient energy production plants we would be able to use 68% less input.

Rather than “exploiting” these cheap/easy resources, we need to have a mindset of “stewardship.” We must care for the land, and hand it over in good shape to the next generation. We must not foul our nest as we live. It makes no sense.

Wastefullness is not a virtue, and it costs tremendously. The problem is we don’t see the costs or problems immediately. These costs will be paid by our children and our children’s children.

This wastefulness is theft and vandalism of the earth’s resources…. and we don’t think twice about our lifestyle (at least until those resources are not so plentiful).

Hopefully we can reign in our appetite for easy energy before we exploit our non-renewable resources down to sustenance levels ( how many buffalo have you seen lately?).

Keep moving forward,

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