energy use in the united states, and an update on ypsi projects

Local solar guru, Dave Strenski, just sent me this new image showing the total flow of U.S. energy in 2006. We had been talking about waste inherent to the system, and Dave offered this as proof of the fact that currently more energy is wasted than is actually used. As Dave and I talked about the diagram, which I believe comes from the Department of Energy, a few interesting things came to light.

[note: A larger copy of the image can be found here.]

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  1. Dave
    Posted December 22, 2008 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    Mark is correct, the graphs are made by the Department of Energy (DOE) at Lawerance Livermore National Labs (LLNL). Your tax dollars in action. If you’d like to see the Energy Flow graph for 2002, you can find it here and other past graphs can be found at a link on the top of that page.

    I don’t know why they stopped posting them in 2002. I had to make a request to LLNL for the 2006 graph. We clearly need to become more efficient it consuming energy.

  2. Jim
    Posted December 22, 2008 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    Does this chart show that over 2/3 of the electricity we produce is lost before it reaches the user, and if so, is there a solution? How much energy could we save by upgrading the electrical grid?

  3. Jim
    Posted December 22, 2008 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Another question: How efficient are electrical vehicles?

    I’m amazed that about half the energy produced in this country is wasted in the distribution of electricity and the operation of vehicles.

  4. Posted December 22, 2008 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    @Jim: I seem to recall reading that a large part of the problem is that most power plants are set up to produce the same amount of electricity continously through the day. Since actual use has a daily cycle, they are built to accomodate peak (or near-peak) demand; doing less would produce daily brownouts. But this means that they are producing the same amount of electricity at, say 3 AM, as they are at 3 PM, and since excess electricity can’t be stored, it’s wasted. This is another advantage of solar power; it produces more electricity during the day, when we generally use more electricity. Dave could probably explain this point better, but this, plus the losses in transmission, are key factors in the attractiveness of distributed solar power generation.

  5. ATechinthePowerIndustry
    Posted December 22, 2008 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

    The problem with Solar, it does work beautifully on a small scale. You can indeed watch your power meter run backwards.

    Our power grid (and current and forseeable tech) is based though on a more or less predictable source that powers the grid. Yes, things can bounce from one source to another really really really quickly (one region to another), so quickly that even the best accounting catches up afterwards.

    This all falls apart though, when solar rolls out on what would be a Useful Scale.

    OK, so all of Detroit has solar on rooftops, power meters running backwards. super.

    A big cloud comes over. now what?

    You have the power use of all Detroit housing now pulling from the grid, instantly.

    The grid can’t feed that. Really. It cannot.

    So this is fantastic and indeed a good way to support a neat technology, but as far as industrial level rollouts- it is not necessarily all a result of evil plotting that industry hasn’t done that yet.

    That doesn’t mean that evil plots might not exist, of course.

  6. ATechinthePowerIndustry
    Posted December 22, 2008 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know why they stopped posting them in 2002. I had to make a request to LLNL for the 2006 graph. We clearly need to become more efficient it consuming energy.

    lol. What happened in 2001 that affects reporting of actual scientific data?

  7. mark
    Posted December 22, 2008 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

    But the sun has to be shining somewhere, though, right? I mean, if the idea is to distribute solar panels widely, doesn’t that solve the problem of a gloomy day? Wouldn’t we just pull power from somewhere on the grid where they’ve got sunshine? And, then there’s also batteries, right?

  8. Dave
    Posted December 22, 2008 at 11:43 pm | Permalink

    All, here are some answers:

    The accompany report to the graph explains where the energy is lost. Unfortunately I don’t have the report for 2006, but the you can find the report for 2002 here:

    Page 5 has this quote:

    “Overall, approximately 67 percent of total energy input is lost in conversion; of electricity generated, approximately 5 percent is lost in plant use and 9 percent is lost in transmission and distribution.”

    Most of the electrical losses are in conversion from coal to steam to mechanical energy to electrical energy.

    I’m not a fan of electrical vehicles, because if you plug your car into the grid, every watt of power you charge your battery with, your burning 3 watts of coal. There are also losses converting electrical energy into chemical energy (battery) and then back into electrical energy to mechanical energy. We’d be much better off with coal burning cars. ( Maybe cracking coal into some type of fuel is a better answer, but I don’t know how expensive (energy wise) it is. The best solution is to drive less and use public transport which is more efficient.

    Now if everyone has solar panels to charge their cars that would be another story, but we would have to recharge at work, since that’s where our cars are parked during the day.

    From what I have read there are actually two type of power plants out there; large constant power plant that “cmadler” talked about, usually burning coal or nuclear, and smaller fast reacting plants that burn natural gas. These fast reacting plant can be brought online quickly for spike demand. Power plants have a *lot* of historical energy usage data to plan their day by, so they can bring up and turn down the large power plants petty accurately. I imagine they start spinning up the plants early in the morning and start turn them down as people head off to bed.

    You can find a typical daily energy consumption chart here:
    From what I have read, the typical home uses 3 to 4 times as much power during the day then at night. Any solar/wind generation would make this day time usage smaller and actually make the power demand for the utility easier to supply.

    Think about it this way. When do we have black outs and brown outs? It’s when we have a hot/sunny day and everyone is using their air conditioning. Well if we coupled solar panels with every air conditioning unit, when the AC is wanting the most power the solar panels will be at it peak production and the grid would be under much less stress.

    Solar is not the 100% answer, just one part of the solution.

    So let’s talk about solar on a large scale. First, we’ll gain 9% more power since there is no transmission losses. Next, today we’re making 0.07%, we’d have to install a ton of solar panels before we need to worry about throwing the grid out of balance. Yes if our electrical grid is say 20% solar (or wind) then we have to think about how continuous the energy will be, but I think we can handle it. Natural gas power plants can come online very quickly to make up for any short term losses due to clouds. We also do a great job about predicting weather, so I’m sure the power plant would have some lead time. If we see clouds in Grand Rapids, it might be a good time to crank up the power plants in Detroit. Clouds don’t pop out of nowhere they travel from west to east with quite a bit of predictability.

    I have also read “A Solar Grand Plan” in Scientific American Magazine. They talk about regional energy storage. Excess solar/wind power is stored underground as compressed gas, then drive turbines when needed. Today Ludington Michigan stores energy during the night by pumping water into a reservoir.

    So in the short term we’re such a tiny fraction we don’t have to worry about it. In the long term we need to have some gas fired plants or regional energy storage to smooth out renewable energy.

  9. Posted December 23, 2008 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    This is always one of my favorite arguments for looking at energy efficiency over alternative power generation.

    It takes 3 watts of solar generating capacity to replace 3 watts of coal generating capacity – but it only takes 1 watt of end-user efficiency improvements (“negawatts”) to replace those 3 watts of coal. (If you follow things upstream, to the mining and transportation of the coal, for example, you find even more savings cascading in from efficiency.)

    Similarly, if you build a community so that people can get to work by walking, biking, or taking the bus, the upstream energy savings from just not producing and pushing the oil around are much bigger than you’d get from converting those people’s cars to electric vehicles.

    On the other hand, energy efficiency is a lot more boring than solar panels and electric cars. It’s so…practical.

  10. egpenet
    Posted December 23, 2008 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    Bingo, Murph:

    We MUST return to mass transit in all of its forms … plus walking, cycling, etc. … and get off this personal transportation kick. This means PLANNING for different types of cities … developing transportation links from our little living nodes to each succeedingly larger node. The end of sprawl may be neigh if we can refocus and realign our lifestyles.

  11. egpenet
    Posted December 23, 2008 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    Thinking local ties into the whole “smart grid” movement … reducing the losses of transmitting electrons thousands of miles, but setting up local production and distribution networks … grids.

    Recently, according to the NYT, a man out east reversed the energy setup by tapping into his Prius to produce AC for his home during a blackout. Bingo.

  12. Ol' E Cross
    Posted December 23, 2008 at 10:43 pm | Permalink

    I find it helpful to think of energy in reproductive term.s For example, sperm is energy. Think of all the sperm that dies before it reaches the fertile egg. That’s just like electricity!

    You have all this energy racing, competing, to reach the fertile light bulb and only the strongest fastest current survives. I take comfort looking at my lights (which is why I keep them all on, always) knowing that they are only powered by strongest, most the aggressive volt. If some weaker watts have petered out on the way, so be it. I mean, who wants their bedroom lit by tepid sperm?

  13. Brackache
    Posted December 23, 2008 at 11:04 pm | Permalink

    OEC: What if your fat, lazy lightbulbs just weren’t picky enough? Their low self-esteem might have allowed only the most ass-holish electrons to penetrate. Good volts finish last.

  14. Ol' E Cross
    Posted December 23, 2008 at 11:59 pm | Permalink

    BA. I do admit that my light bulbs seem to let anything with a current enter. Picky, they ain’t. I’m just suggesting that over the miles and miles of wire that the electrons competed, the ones that finally bust my breakers have a certain special spark.

  15. Walt
    Posted December 24, 2008 at 12:00 am | Permalink

    I celebrate the body electric.

  16. Brackache
    Posted December 24, 2008 at 12:34 am | Permalink

    There must be some way to harness the self-sabotaging, cynical electrons that refuse to compete for the sake of character building.

    Maybe that’s what darkness is.

  17. Sierra
    Posted December 24, 2008 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    That’s the coolest graph I’ve seen in recent memory.

  18. mark
    Posted December 24, 2008 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

    If I get a moment this weekend, I’ll send a link to a few other sites that might be interested in posting about this. It seems too important to just stay here on my site.

  19. John on Forest
    Posted January 1, 2009 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    A vast combination of energy solutions are needed.

    Improved efficiency is number one. We need to improve our cars by a minimum of 1 mpg/year. 1.5 mpg/year would be better. Residential and commercial buildings are next, needing a 30%-50% improvement in efficiency (kudos to Clean Energy Coalition for project Rebuild Ypsilanti.)

    We also need better efficiency in power generation and transmission. One of the best technologies in this arena is Combined Heat and Power (CHP) where the waste heat from generating electricity (approximately equal to the useful electric power generated and generally not used at all) is used to heat commercial and residential properties, as well as to power industries that use lower grade heat in their processes (drying grain for example).

    Next we need to be smart about how we use what forms of energy. Transportation fuels need to be liquid (perhaps compressed gas) because only liquid fuels have high enough energy density to power a vehicle a large enough distance. Liquid fuels are also very quick with regard to refueling, especially compared to electric batteries. We should use oil and natural gas as little as possible for anything except transportation fuels and chemicals.

    A smart electric distribution infrastructure is needed to better handle diverse electrical source so that peak loads can be furnished even when the wind suddenly dies or the sun is obscured by clouds.

  20. Posted January 1, 2009 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

    Fuel efficient cars are unamerican. Only communists drive hybrids.

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