Electric America

The People and Places Powering the USA

Filtering by Tag: Intro

The Simple Energy Story- 7 Things You Don’t Think About When You Turn On The Lights

1.       Everything comes from the ground- we move mountains, crush earth, and remove land to get the uranium,  coal, natural gas and oil that creates the electricity to light your home and keep you cool. Your demand for electricity fuels these industries and these activities.

2.       Fossil fuels are buried, fossilized sunshine; they are energy sources that have been created over hundreds of millions of years. We dig up coal, natural gas, and oil, and burn them to turn a turbine, powering a generator and producing electricity. The whole process converts thermal energy to mechanical to electrical energy.  

3.       The more we demand power (the more we leave lights on), the more energy infrastructure and power plants we need to satisfy the demand. This leads to a large stock of power plants in our cities and communities.

4.       Utilities must have enough power plants to power each and every home on its most demanding day at its most demanding time (typically a hot summer day around noon). Electricity is constantly being produced so that your AC can turn on exactly when you demand it. Utilities  have built thousands of power plants, and consumers have funded them, so that more power is able to be produced at any given time than is used. We typically do not experience brownouts in the United States for this reason.

5.       The lower your energy demand is on the hottest day, the lesser the need for huge or new power plants.  On your electric bill you will see a  "demand charge.” This is based on the power production capacity that utilities must have to meet every household’s need on its most demanding day.  If users can lower this “peak demand,” fewer power plants will be needed and demand charges will be lower.  You can make sure your household energy use doesn’t spike too high, for example, by reducing other demands at that time; you can wait to run the dishwasher or washing machine until you turn down your air conditioning. 

6.       The cheapest, most sustainable form of energy is the energy not used. It’s cheaper for utilities to pay you not to use energy when it’s toughest to provide power to everyone, than to build new plants for those moments of extreme demand. This concept is referred to as “demand response,” or “demand management.”  In the future, the  consumer will play an increasing role in responding to the needs of the grid, and helping to balance the load by reducing consumption on the most demanding days. Demand management is also critical for the integration of renewables into the grid because solar and wind power are produced at certain times during the day. New technologies are providing more information on energy use patterns, and are increasing communication between utilities and consumers.  Both the utility and the consumer have an incentive to ensure that peak power remains low. Ultimately, if demand spikes too high on those extreme weather days, new power plants will be needed, which cost hundreds of millions of dollars to bring online. This comes out of the consumer’s pocket, born by charges and fees on electric bills, and involves a lot of risk for the utility. If the power provider and the consumer communicate and work together to manage the electricity loads, everyone wins.

7. The power provider and the consumer have a stake in reliable power supply and minimizing the impact on the customer’s wallet, air quality, and community life. How you use electricity affects how utilities produce power and how much they need produce. Ultimately, you, as a consumer, have the ability and responsibility to manage electricity use, and facilitate clean power and clean vibrant communities.

Electric America and Why You Should Care

Electricity is an unseen product, flowing into and out of homes, schools, and businesses, literally powering our country. It is in constant demand and production, but few people see its impact. Energy transmission infrastructure is ubiquitous, and with over 7,000 power plants in the United States, so is power generation (Source: EIA FAQ). Pick a place in the country, and I guarantee that you will be within eyeshot of electricity infrastructure. 100% of The United States is electrified, and our powerlines are everywhere (Source: World Bank).

If I were to ask, “where does your power come from?” most people would respond with blank stares, or maybe with the name of the utility: “PSE&G?” “ConEd?” “Pepco?” “I think I get a gas bill..” The general public knows little about how their electricity is produced, how their electricity demand fuels climate change, and how they can help to promote renewables.

Just like we don’t know the breakdown of gas from Saudi Arabia versus Canada in a given tank of gas, we too, as energy consumers don’t know the sources of our power. We are simply drawing from the elusive and complicated “grid.” Educated people, even those studying energy and the environment, generally cannot tell you the breakdown of the state or nation’s fuel supply, how it gets to them, and how they can take control of their personal energy security.

In New Jersey (NJ) today, 50% of electricity comes from natural gas plants (49.6% in 2015).  45% came from nuclear power plants, together making up 95% of the state’s power supply. In New York (NY), the power breakdown is similar-  41% of the state’s electricity is generated by natural gas, 32% from nuclear power, and 19% by conventional hydroelectricity (Source: EIA Net Generation By State and Type).   

In the United States as a whole, electricity is generated principally at fossil-fueled and non-renewable sourced power plants, including natural gas, coal, and nuclear. Energy production, including heating and electricity, worldwide accounts for 25% of greenhouse gas emissions, a quarter just from one sector (Source: EPA, IPCC ). As a significant world energy consumer, and a critical player in the global energy sector, the United States and its energy consumers must be aware of its resources and  consumption.  

Electricity from renewables in The United States makes up only 9% of U.S. power supply, excluding hydropower (Source: EIA Renewables). If hydropower is included, that number goes up to 13%;, hydropower  is controversial in its own vein, and considered renewable in some states and non-renewable in others (Source: Midwestern Energy News Hydropower RPS by State; Nat Geo Hydropower).

Transparency and conscientious consumption has taken hold in the food and clothing industries, but not in the energy industry, perhaps the most critical in regard to climate change.  With more frequent and more extreme weather events due to climate change, customers are also increasingly vulnerable to power outages. Further, as demand for energy to fight the changing climate grows, greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector are likely to keep climbing too.

In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, and even this week with winter storm Stella, people began to think about their power sources. During Sandy, NYC residents living below 39th street lost power. Most people knew if they were served by the substation at East 14th street, as it flooded and exploded, and left hundreds of thousands of people in the dark (Source: CBS NYC Utility Cuts Power to More Households in Sandy’s Aftermath). NY and 16 other states experienced power outages during Superstorm Sandy. 7 million people lost power in total, many people for over a week (Source: CBS Superstorm Sandy: More than 7 Million Without Power ).

Beyond the most extreme effects of the storm, fatality, it is clear that the storm and losing electricity is detrimental to day to day life- basic services, mobility and infrastructure, business. Sandy cost the NY and NJ over $71 billion in damages alone, not including losses in revenue and productivity from the destruction and temporarily disabled workforce. (Source: Reuters Sandy Costs).  Many people, my dad included, invested in backup generators that run on natural gas or diesel to provide electricity and heat for when supply is compromised.

 How can we protect ourselves- our communities, business and homes? The first step is staying informed and knowing your power source.  The user is the missing link in shifting to a durable, more nimble, reliable grid supported by a strong clean energy economy. Now is a critical time to show the American public the American energy landscape, and I’m here to do just that. Check back here every Tuesday and Thursday for what you need to know about clean energy technologies, power plants and policies, and for stories of people working in the energy sector and everyday people carrying on with their electrified lives. Join me as I explore Electric America.

Molly Seltzer is a writer and photographer based in the NY area covering topics of energy and the environment. She is affiliated with the Rutgers Energy Institute and Greenhouse Gas Industries LLC. She has held positions in the green building consulting field and at non-profits researching energy policy and finance.

Questions, comments, corrections? Always welcome! Please send me a note at mollyaseltzer@gmail.com

Love energy and photography? Check out my photographs of energy infrastructure here: http://www.seltzershots.com/energy/  and follow me on Instagram @seltzershots.

For more, check back here on Tuesdays and Thursdays for all you need to know about Electric America. Follow me @mollyaseltzer on Twitter for more energy updates!

 Additional information:

For more about NYC electricity, Emily Rueb gives an in-depth look: NYTimes How NYC Gets Its Electricity

Don’t live in NY or NJ? Click the following link to see your state’s energy breakdown: EIA Net Generation By State and Type.

More on U.S. energy consumption? In total the country consumes 97.7 quadrillion btu annually. Check out EIA Energy Explained for more data.

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